Two Bay Area cases that have made headlines have a common thread that the victims’ families may not want suspects charged, though that’s still unlikely to change a DA’s decision on whether to pursue charges.
The early February death of Oakland baker Jen Angel is still bringing heartfelt remembrances of her legacy, but given she was killed during a criminal act, it’s also spurring discussion of her own political dedication against incarceration and overpolicing. On a somewhat related note, it’s been reported that the wife of the Tesla driver alleged to have intentionally driven his family off a San Mateo cliff on January 3 has asked that her husband not be charged. The Chronicle is connecting these two cases, in a piece exploring whether victim’s families’ wishes influence district attorneys in the decision whether to charge.
The short answer is no, the family’s wishes usually do not affect whether a DA brings charges. “A crime is a crime against society, not just the individual victim,” former federal prosecutor Laurie Levenson told the Chronicle. “Prosecutors need to consider whether this person is a threat to others and what kind of message is sent by the position they take. However, prosecutors do consider the thoughts of the friends and the family” when deciding which charges to seek.
In the Tesla case, it’s not 100% clear how the family feels. The Chronicle has some reporting saying that driver Dharmesh Patel’s wife “did not want him charged with a crime, the man’s lawyer told a judge.” Note who’s doing the talking there: the suspect’s lawyer. There has been some sensationalist coverage alleging that Patel’s wife doesn't want him charged, but she has not publicly confirmed this. Last we knew, the wife had not spoken to prosecutors, and her attorneys told the San Mateo DA’s office she would not speak to them until a time “when she was physically ready to do so,” per the Chronicle.
Either way, San Mateo County DA Steve Wagstaffe has charged Patel with three counts of attempted murder, so it is a settled matter that he will likely be charged and tried.
In the case of Jen Angel, there are not any suspects to charge at this point, as no one has been arrested for the February 6 attempted robbery and car-dragging incident. The Chronicle did report on a statement from Angel’s friends and family saying “As a long-time social movement activist and anarchist, Jen did not believe in state violence, carceral punishment, or incarceration as an effective or just solution to social violence and inequity.” The statement added “do not use her legacy of care and community to further inflame narratives of fear, hatred, and vengeance, nor to advance putting public resources into policing, incarceration, or other state violence that perpetuates the cycles of violence that resulted in this tragedy.”
That said, Alameda County DA Pamela Price has not made any statements on the matter, likely because there are no suspects or arrests. And if there were, it would certainly be a factor if the suspects had prior charges.
Lack of the victim’s cooperation, or the family’s lack of cooperation, can indeed hurt an attempt to prosecute. “Non-cooperation can doom a case to failure,” Stanford law professor Robert Weisberg told the Chronicle. “But if the D.A. wants to bring the case, they (the victims or their families) cannot legally stop it.”
Image: Robert Linder via Unsplash