Sotomayor hearings: The 'Perry Mason' influence
After joking about their moms, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a former prosecutor, wanted to get a sense from Judge Sonia Sotomayor, also a former prosecutor, about how she looks at the formulation of criminal charges against defendants in difficult situations, such as when a family member is responsible for the death of a child because of drunk driving.
Sotomayor explained that she first realized she wanted to be a prosecutor when she was a child, watching the TV show “Perry Mason,” which any baby boomer will remember as the courtroom drama starring Raymond Burr as a criminal defense attorney.
In one episode, said Sotomayor, “he proved his client innocent and got the actual murderer to confess.” Later, she said, Perry Mason and the prosecutor were talking about the case.
“Perry said to the prosecutor, 'It must cause you some pain having expended all that effort and to have the charges dismissed.'
“And the prosecutor looked up and said, ‘No, my job as a prosecutor is to do justice, and justice is served when a guilty man is convicted and an innocent man is not.’ And I thought to myself, that’s quite amazing, to be able to serve that role.”
She did become a prosecutor, of course, and it was in the office of Manhattan Dist. Atty. Robert M. Morgenthau, one of her first professional mentors, that she faced a dilemma about whether to charge a young man with larceny. At the time, said Sotomayor, she was known in the prosecutor’s office for “bringing the top charge.”
But, she added, “periodically I would look at the quality of evidence and say that was not enough.”
In one situation, the defense attorney for the young man came to her and pleaded with her to please look at his background: “He’s a kid with a disability, talk to his teachers, look at his life, his record…. Everything he said was absolutely true. This was a kid with not a blemish on his life.”
Sotomayor visited the victim in the case, and it turned out she never saw who took her pocketbook. The police had stopped the defendant in the subway because he was wearing a black jacket and the victim thought she had seen a black jacket.
“I took the case to my supervisor and said I don’t think we can prove this case, and my supervisor agreed and we dismissed the charges.”
In other cases, said Sotomayor, she thought it was more proper for a jury to make that decision, and she took those cases to court.
“My point,” she added, “is that it is such a wonderful part of being a prosecutor … That TV character said something that motivated my choices in life.”
— Robin Abcarian
Photo: Raymond Burr, star of TV's "Perry Mason."