Meet The Prosecutor Turned Reality TV Star Who Runs One Of The Worst Offices In America.
Under District Attorney Steve Wolfson, prosecutors in Las Vegas have led the nation in new death sentences, repeatedly engaged in racist jury selection, and maintained a secret bank account to pay witnesses for their testimony in criminal cases.
During the opening credits of Las Vegas Law, a 2016 Investigation Discovery show, a voice over announces, “Vegas. It’s exotic, exciting, excessive,” and the evenly-tanned face of the Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson appears. “I’m Steve Wolfson,” he says, “I’m not afraid of the cameras seeing what we do.”
Las Vegas Law is COPS for the lawyer set. There are men in suits — Clark County prosecutors — sitting around a sexy polished conference room table talking about evidence that is “devastating” to the case and problems involving proximate cause and admissible evidence: “That’s opinion; it’s not evidence.” The prosecutors weigh whether sex assault victims are credible or not: “Is that enough to overcome reasonable doubt?”
Drama notwithstanding, the television series accurately depicts a long-standing cowboy culture in the Clark County DA’s office, where lassos are replaced by legal pads. And while Wolfson, elected in 2012, promised to clean up the office and make it presentable for the 21st century – as evidenced by his willingness to put his actions on television – it’s far from clear that the office has changed substantially from its wild past.
Take the death penalty, for example. A 2016 report by the Fair Punishment Project found that Clark County was one of the “deadliest” counties in its disproportionate use of the death penalty. But, the report also found that nearly half of Clark County’s capital cases between 2010 and 2015 were plagued with prosecutorial misconduct, one of the highest rates of misconduct among counties that frequently seek the death penalty.
One of the attorneys responsible for this state of affairs is David Stanton, an old-school prosecutor from before Wolfson’s time, who is famous for vigorously pursuing capital cases. After he was fired from the Reno DA’s office in 1999 for problems with anger management, a speeding citation, and resisting arrest, Stanton subjected himself to counseling and moved to Vegas.Once in the Clark County office, Stanton distinguished himself with his zeal for punishment and his talent for sending men to death row. And Vegas had a lot of capital cases. At its zenith around 2011, just before Wolfson took over the office, Clark County had eighty pending capital cases, twice the number as Los Angeles, which has a population five times larger.
Wolfson took over the office after spending eight years on the Las Vegas City Council and promised to reduce the use of the death penalty by giving more scrutiny to each death-penalty eligible case. To his credit he has, by about half. But, he had steadfastly maintained that the death penalty is worth it no matter the cost even as case after case is vacated because of racial discrimination in jury selection. Further, he hasn’t substantially altered the composition of the staff attorneys, who are the ones regularly trying these capital cases. Stanton himself has sought and obtained eight death sentences in his tenure in Clark County, four under Wolfson, despite Wolfson’s promises to decrease the use of the death penalty. (In the first episode Las Vegas Law, Stanton tries a death penalty case, and Wolfson intones that he is “one of the best attorneys in the office.”)
Wolfson has also continued many of the dirty tricks that previous prosecutors used to ensure convictions. A recent investigation into Wolfson’s office found that for over two years, he maintained a Clark County tradition of paying witnesses for their testimony from a secret checking account and failed to disclose that information to the defense. The payments appear to have been substantial, including cash, rent payments, and relocation expensessometimes over $1,000 in amounts, totaling somewhere in excess of $300,000; prosecutors also allegedly created fake subpoenas to cover up the payments. One witness said that prosecutors knew she was using her cash to purchase drugs.
This was a particular problem in capital cases, contributing to the high number of overturned convictions. Once uncovered, Wolfson called the cash program “probably inappropriate,” and promised to change the practice to limit payments to costs associated with coming to and from the courthouse to testify, which is Nevada state law. (There was also a requirement that prosecutors maintain a database of such information, but news stories suggest it has not been maintained.) Stanton, for his part, steadfastly maintained that there was nothing unusual about the program, telling a judge in 2014 that there was no need to disclose to the defense the fact that the DA office was paying a witness’s rent payments.
In addition to keeping the line attorneys who continue the “old ways,” Wolfson has also inadequately addressed recent high-profile innocence cases. This year, a ProPublica story highlighted the wrongful conviction of Fred Stesse and revealed the sins of William Kephart. Kephart was a prosecutor in the Clark County DA office from the early 1990s until 2010, when he became a justice of the peace and then judge. As the investigation notes, Kephart has been cited in at least five instances of prosecutorial misconduct. The Nevada Supreme Court even admonished Kephart for mischaracterizing “reasonable doubt” in a capital case, adding, “[I]t is apparent that some prosecutors are not taking to heart this court’s repeated admonishments…We can no longer tolerate noncompliance.” The court also required Kephart to explain why he should not be sanctioned, which is highly unusual. Steese was pardoned this month, even though Wolfson’s office wrote a letter opposing the pardon.
Another one of Kephart’s cases to come recently under fire is the murder prosecution of Kristin Lobato. Lobato was prosecuted for killing and mutilating a man in 2001. She was finally convicted of manslaughter after two trials and has steadfastly maintained her innocence. In February of 2016, Kephart gave a television news interview about the Lobato case, as it had pending appeals. “I stand behind what we did. I have no qualms about what happened and how we prosecuted this matter. I believe it was completely justice done,” he said. The May 2017 complaint filed against Kephart argues that this statement contradicts Lobato’s innocence claims. Kephart, for his part, has said that he’s done nothing wrong.
But Kephart is far from the one bad apple in the bunch. Indeed, the entire culture of the office has remained tainted. Wolfson has succeeded in making incremental changes, but he has retained many of the staff members hired under the old regime and has not made any moves to rectify past mistakes. Instead, Wolfson has sought the limelight with such stunts like taking to Reddit to comment on O.J. Simpson’s fitness for parole. (His wife, retired Judge Jackie Glass, also has the acting bug. She replaced Nancy Grace on Swift Justice for one season until the show was cancelled and presided over O.J.’s 2008 robbery trial.) Wolfson recently announced his intent to run for re-election this year, ending rumors he might run for Senate.
The Clark County DA’s office isn’t the only one where prosecutors skirt the law and go unpunished. Rather, the infectiousness of misconduct is an example of why it is so difficult to discipline prosecutors. Indeed, time after time, prosecutors are named in misconduct complaints and manage to skate by because, as Kephart responded in his most recent complaint, they argue that being named is enough. Unlike the criminal defendants they seek to put behind bars, prosecutors are able to escape by minimizing the damage done to individual lives. And even when they are disciplined, their sanctions are so meaningless as to be laughable. In one 2002 sanction, Kephart was asked to pay a $250 fine.
Times may be changing. In response to the Stesse case, the Nevada legislature passed two laws intended to curb prosecutorial misconduct this session. Both measures were substantially watered-down from their original forms thanks to lobbying by an ADA’s from Wolfson’s office. None of the proposed laws help past victims of misconduct nor do they provide for penalties to deter prosecutors from future misconduct.
In the meantime, the main portrayal of the Wolfson’s office remains the spaghetti Western version available on the small screen. Some defense attorneys have argued that the show violates the rights of their clients. Final takes are approved by Wolfson’s office and the County also receives payment for each show. Many TV shows glorify the role of the prosecutor’s office, portraying them as gladiators fighting against people who are clearly bad folks we want off the street. “It’s like the defendants get the benefit of the doubt,” complains one Clark County ADA on the show, apparently forgetting yet again about the idea of “innocent until proven guilty.”