Builds on gang prosecution success
LOS ANGELES – A Filipina lawyer is banking on her success as a gang homicide prosecutor to serve as a springboard for her bid to become the next Judge for the LA County Superior Court.
Teresa Pineda Magno, a 14-year veteran Deputy District Attorney in LA, seeks a seat on the bench with a strong desire to make a lasting positive change in the county.
To date, Magno has completed 81 felony jury trials, 41 of which were gang-related murder cases that occurred in South LA, and in the Cities of Compton, Inglewood, and Hawthorne. She achieved 100 percent conviction rate in these murder cases.
In 1987, Magno immigrated to the US from the Philippines. There, her family experienced injustice under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.
During the days of the regime, Magno recalled how their family’s land was taken away by the government and how her father became a staunch activist against the Marcos regime.
Magno remembers how her father was among the advocates, who always protested against Marcos. She learned of the true horror of justice denied when one of her father’s compatriots – the most prominent activist leader – was ‘salvaged.’
The word ‘salvage’ is a term in the Philippines for extra-judicial killings carried out by corrupt officials’ goons or crooked cops.
Magno said that the harrowing experiences that her father went through under the Marcos rule changed him forever, that it “robbed the humanity” out of him.
Her experience under the Marcos regime now serves as one of Magno’s motivations in her pursuit of justice for all.
“I always thought that what matters the most is being able to make a difference in people’s lives, not to get rich,” Magno said: “That’s what motivated me to [pursue] a career in which I know I will make a difference.”
In a recent telephone interview with the Asian Journal, Magno talked about her reasons for serving in the justice system, her stint in gang homicide prosecution, and issues in LA County that needs to be addressed in order to swiftly and properly serve justice to the aggrieved.
Asian Journal (AJPI): What made you pursue a career in the justice system (as opposed to practicing law in the private sector)?
Teresa Pineda Magno (TPM): When I went to UCLA Law School, I interned with the City Attorney’s office and I was assigned to work with victims of crime. Working with them, talking to them made me realize that there are people in this country who rely on the law a lot for salvation, for justice. And I wanted to be part of that. So I decided [that] I wanted to be a District Attorney in order to make a difference. It’s recognizing that being able to get justice is what gets people through difficult times. A few years ago, I did a murder case. And when we were able to convict the murderer, the victim’s mom told me afterwards that she knew that she was never going to see her son again. But knowing that the people who murdered her son were going away for life [would] give her closure to cope with the loss. That’s essentially how I see my job, it’s being able to get justice for those who have been wronged.
AJPI: What achievement(s) are you particularly proud of?
TPM: I’m most proud of the stint that I had in the District Attorney’s office when I served [with] the Hardcore Gang Unit. It’s a unit that basically focuses on gang-related crimes. And they needed good lawyers that can handle what were essentially the most difficult cases. Anytime gang members commit a crime, it’s not easy to get witnesses to come forward for fear of retaliation. So, in a difficult gang-related case, you don’t have a lot of witnesses coming forward. Gang members are pretty good in instilling fear and intimidation within the community. In 2006, I got assigned to what is considered the most difficult [area], and that is the city of Compton. I spent a total of 7 years in Hardcore. In the 7 years I was in Hardcore, I [handled] 41 murder cases, and five attempted murder cases. So that’s a total of 46. Among the murder cases, I have a 100 percent conviction rate. I’ve been told that’s [it’s] unusual, it’s a pretty excellent statistic. I think because of that, I got the Hardcore DA of the month award, and I also got promoted to a Grade Four just this year. I’m proud of the statistic, but what gives me more pride is knowing that every gangster put away means less people getting murdered. And I love that feeling.
AJPI: What was it like to work closely in such an environment?
TPM: I’m not going to lie. It was scary because I see how these gang members work. They did not hesitate taking the life of a human being. I’m not going to lie, it scared me. But I also knew back then that the way they operate is by intimidating people. And I knew that they were going to [try to] intimidate me. Every time I’m in court, a lot of their fellow gang members would show up. I knew I was protected. Every courthouse is secured. The District Attorney’s office does a good job of protecting us. So far, it’s worked. But I knew that what I had to do was even if I felt fear, was to not show it. Every time they would stare me down, I would stare them back. And it helped. Over time, I’ve learned to ignore the threats. Thank God, nothing’s happened so far.
AJPI: So you got a lot of threats during that stint?
TPM: Indirect threats. People mouthing off, people in the audience in the courtroom shaking their heads at me. There was one case in which a defendant told a cell mate that if he lost the case, he was going to have someone kill the DA and kill the IO [investigating officer]. It was regarded as a credible threat. I received protection. But nothing happened to me within the seven years [when I was in Hardcore]. I’d like to think that the security measures work. Also, what I think helped me was that I never disrespected any defendant in court. I had a job to do, and I did it well. But I also knew I did not have to insult or disparage [the defendants]. I was very professional in every case. Maybe that’s why I never moved them [to] actually [go] after me. There were incidents before where someone tried to stab the DA in court. Another colleague got punched in the face. But they’re all guys. Maybe that’s part of it, too. I’m female. And I said, I was very respectful to them. So as I said, no one has physically gone after me. Thank God. I’ve gone after the most violent gangs, and no one has gone after me physically.
AJPI: Based on your experience, what issue do you think LA as a whole has to address?
TPM: One of the biggest things that is a problem right now in LA is the funding issues. They’ve actually closed down a lot of court houses. They’ve also laid off a lot of court staff. Recently, I was in Compton, and [some of my friends who are judges over there] said that they’ve closed down the small claims court in the Compton courthouse. So for residents of Compton, if they have small claims issues [they have to] actually go to Downtown LA. [It’s] not just in Compton but throughout LA County, [that] they’ve closed down courthouses. Like I said, access to justice means so much. If we make it harder for people to access like for example, the small claims court, then we’re denying them justice. That’s a big problem and it continues to happen. Because of my vast experience as a lawyer, I can be ready on Day 1 to run a courtroom very efficiently. Newer judges who [don’t have as much] experience as I do, will probably take so long to just figure out what’s going on. Instead of being able to do five cases a day, or 10 or 20 cases a day, they can only probably do one or two. But my [vast] experience will ensure that I am ready on Day 1. I will be able to run a courtroom more efficiently. And the faster and more efficiently we deal with cases, that will directly result in more people being able to access the courts.
(LA Weekend November 9-12, 2013 Sec A pg.10)