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Top prosecutor seeks justice for victims

Sandra Doorley, Monroe County’s first female district attorney, leads an office that last year prosecuted nearly 5,000 felony cases and 17,548 misdemeanor cases with a conviction rate of 94 percent. (Photo by Kimberly McKinzie)

 

Rapists, robbers and murderers—Sandra Doorley has prosecuted them all in her 20 years with the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office. Her quest for justice has earned her an impressive record of convictions in the thousands of high-profile cases she has undertaken.

Now as the district attorney, the first woman elected—in 2011—to that post in Monroe County, she is preparing to prosecute an accused cop killer.

“I love everything about my position—my fantastic staff, the work that we do in seeking justice and supporting crime victims—and in particular, I love the courtroom and am honored to still represent the ‘People of the State of New York’ in criminal prosecutions,” Doorley says. “The most rewarding aspect is to bring justice to crime victims and the families of homicide victims.”

Rochester was Doorley’s first stop out of law school. After graduating from Syracuse University College of Law in 1988, she took a position at Harris Beach PLLC. Four years later she joined the district attorney’s office, and over the next two decades she built her career serving as head of several divisions there, including chief of the Felony DWI Bureau in 2004, deputy chief of the Major Felony Bureau from 2005 to 2008 and Homicide Bureau chief and chief of Appeals in 2011.

Being a woman in a male-dominated field has not been a factor, says Doorley, 51.

“Obviously, as a woman, I bring different qualities to my leadership, but I would like to believe that I am judged on my work and the quality of the office as a whole,” she says.

Notorious crimes
Her career has included some of Rochester’s notorious crimes, such as the prosecution of Marquis Parker, convicted in the shooting of two Rochester police officers during a home invasion; the prosecution of former Greece police chief Merritt Rahn, convicted of four felonies and three misdemeanors in the cover-up of serious crimes committed by two of his officers; and the prosecution of Rochester Institute of Technology professor Timothy Wells, who murdered his wife.

While she is gratified by the way her work puts today’s criminals behind bars, Doorley says some of the prosecutions that bring her the most satisfaction are cases she closes from decades ago.

“The most memorable cases for me are the cold cases. The shining moments are when I review old cases and look at property we can send out for testing—when I can go to the victim in a crime that happened 20 years ago and tell them we think we found the person who killed your loved one. Those are the shining moments that stand out for me.”

One such case is that of the June 1990 attack of a Rochester couple by an intruder in their apartment. The brutal rape of Ann Rickless and murder of Leo Rickless by Timothy Farrare went unsolved for 19 years until DNA he surrendered following three robberies in Ohio was matched to DNA evidence taken at the Rochester crime scene.

“It was an elderly couple attacked in their apartment on Monroe Avenue. They woke up and found a burglar who had broken in through a window,” Doorley recalls. “He used a bat they had in their bedroom to beat the husband, and as he laid near death on the floor he raped his wife.

“When I went to tell her we caught him, she was in a nursing home. Even though it had been 20 years, she told me, ‘You get that son of a bitch.’”

Ann Rickless died before Doorley could bring her attacker to prosecution, but she still had her say at his sentencing hearing in November 2009.

“I played a tape from 1990 of her interview with a television crew after the attack where she described how her husband was in a coma and later died because of the beating,” Doorley says.

The victim was able to speak from beyond the grave. Doorley wanted to make certain the victims were not forgotten, even 20 years later. Their attacker received the maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison for the murder conviction.

Seeing a case from a victim’s point of view often influences how Doorley handles the prosecution—from pursuing each lead until a suspect is identified, no matter how old a case is, to how she presents the evidence in the courtroom.

“When she presented the case against my daughter’s killer, she thought about our feelings,” says Betsy McCabe, the mother of murder victim Karen Turtu.

Turtu was found beaten and strangled to death behind a Lake Avenue restaurant in February 1993. Her case went unsolved until DNA evidence linked her killer, Ronald Vrooman, to the crime.

“When they put the pictures on to show the jurors, she turned the monitor off so I didn’t have to look at the photos of my daughter. The public defender didn’t. It made me sick to look at my daughter like that,” McCabe says.

Although McCabe never gave up hope her daughter’s killer would be found, she was in shock when she learned he had been caught.

“It was 15 years before they found this guy. That’s a long time to wait to find a murderer,” McCabe says. “I have to thank Sandra for all of it. That DNA made me a believer.”

She is such a believer that she became a staunch advocate for the expansion of the use of DNA evidence. She joined forces with Doorley and others in the push for a DNA databank in New York. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law in 2012, making New York the first state with an All Crimes DNA Law.

“Gov. Cuomo asked her to bring me down and she drove me to Albany to meet the governor and talk about the importance of DNA,” McCabe recalls. “I still give speeches for the cause today. My daughter’s killer was already in jail awaiting parole on another crime. He had been bragging about killing my daughter and a prisoner contacted the DA’s office and then the killer gave DNA. Now he is in jail for good.”

Costly operation
Finding resources is one of the greatest challenges Doorley has to face, she says.

With 140 employees—80 attorneys and 60 support staff—her office is one of the largest departments in Monroe County government. It operates on roughly $12.4 million—1.5 percent of the overall county budget—plus an additional $2 million in grants.

“I trimmed the budget as much as I could in my first year as DA, but I constantly struggle with our increasing caseloads, and I wish that the budget would allow for additional attorneys,” Doorley explains.

She often uses asset forfeiture funds—cash secured from drug dealers, the liquidation of legally seized vehicles and other assets that are the fruit of illegal activity. In 2013 it amounted to $209,100, up from $86,421 in 2012.

“We purchase the vehicles for our investigators with forfeiture funds. That’s huge,” Doorley says, “because we don’t have to ask for those funds in our county budget. Taxpayers don’t have to pay for our vehicles.

“We also use the forfeiture funds to pay for supplies for particular cases, technical resources, expert witness fees and DNA testing that is not able to be performed in the Monroe County crime lab.”

In 2013, Doorley and her team prosecuted 4,987 felony cases and 17,548 misdemeanor cases with a conviction rate of 94 percent. The Monroe County D.A.’s office is one of the highest-volume offices in New York. Violent felony cases and homicides have risen dramatically, with the latter jumping from 38 in 2012 to 78 in 2013.

Prosecutions include plea arrangements in lieu of trial, especially in cases where the evidence, eyewitness testimony or other variables in the case may warrant such a deal. There are times when Doorley adamantly opposes any plea deal, though.

“We have very strict plea restrictions on illegal weapons cases and fully support the efforts of Project Exile,” Doorley says. “Through collaborative efforts with our law enforcement partners and the U.S. Attorney’s office, we’ve pledged to prosecute those found in possession of illegal guns to the fullest extent of the law. The slogan is simple: You plus illegal guns equal prison.”

Doorley’s office faced controversy in the case of Thomas Johnson III, a parolee accused in the shooting death of Rochester police officer Daryl Pierson. Johnson had been arrested in a prior robbery case and was indicted for robbery in the second degree in 2010. Because of perceived issues with the proof in the case, the assistant district attorney at the time offered a one-step reduction to attempted robbery in the second degree and Johnson was sentenced to three years in prison.

He was never indicted for a weapons charge per se, Doorley explains. It was a robbery with a firearm, but no firearm was ever viewed or recovered.

“It’s tough for me to comment on this case because it is a pending litigation. A jury trial is scheduled for April,” Doorley says. “It’s an incredible tragedy.” Fighting violence

When it comes to pinpointing the cause of violence, Doorley believes it is not simply one thing.

“Violence here is not caused by poverty alone. There are a lot of factors. Our education system has failed some kids. Couple that with no family structure,” Doorley says.

She said she feels violence is not as widespread as some might believe.

“There are a few areas of the city where there are a lot of good people and then a small fraction of people with no respect for authority or the law. That small fraction drives the violence,” she says. “The majority are good people who live here and just want to be able to walk down their streets freely and safely without the fear of random gunfire hitting them.”

Just as she sees no one cause, she sees no simple solution to the violence either.

“No one major force will solve the problem. Education is essential and can open doors in so many ways. Job training and mentoring are equally as important,” she says.

Looking back on her career, Doorley is grateful for the mentors that helped her hone her skills as a prosecutor. An important influence was her predecessor.

“Mike Green was a mentor to me since he was chief of the DWI Bureau, showing me how to get a case together,” Doorley recalls. “I remember going to him for help with my first homicide in the late ’90s. Early on in my career he was an influence, helping me think like a prosecutor.”

Green, who served as county district attorney from 2004 to 2011, is now the executive deputy commissioner of the State Division of Criminal Justice Services in Albany. He remembers Doorley as a top-notch prosecutor.

“I realized how good she was when she was prosecuting the Merritt Rahn case,” Green recalls. “Because it was a case involving a former police chief, it was high-profile, and she was under a lot of scrutiny from every angle. Some in the law enforcement community and local radio said personal things. But she was able to maintain her focus and do her job with great results.”

Doorley is seen by her staff as a leader that appreciates a strong work ethic, demands honesty and strives to nurture trust.

“Sandra is a fearless leader. She is very approachable, with her door almost always open for anyone in the office,” says Mary Randall, assistant district attorney and division chief of the Special Victims Unit. “She respects the opinions of others and is always willing to listen.

“Personally what I like best about Sandra is that she has a very caring and sensitive side to her. Many times, including some of her trials as recently as the Alexandra Kogut murder trial, she has shed many tears listening to the surviving members of victims’ families speak from their hearts at sentencing.”

Sleepy Hollow native
Doorley credits her parents, John and Irma Doorley, for her sensitivity and strong sense of compassion. She was raised in the small town of Sleepy Hollow, Westchester County, with an older brother and sister. Her father was a World War II veteran and she enjoyed his stories about his journeys to Southeast Asia.

“Education was very important to my parents, making me strive to be the best that I could be. They both taught me to have a strong work ethic, to have faith in God, to honor family and show compassion to those around me,” Doorley says. “They both have been deceased for many years now, but I know they’re smiling down upon me every day.”

Her parents’ emphasis on education could be part of the reason Doorley sees herself teaching one day.

“If I ever switched careers, I would be a teacher, a professor. I love to teach children. Every once in a while I teach at St. John Fisher. My daughter is at Mercy (Our Lady of Mercy School for Young Women), and I do talks there on domestic violence,” she says.

Doorley and her husband, William Loftus, live in Webster with their daughters, Erin, 17, and Meghan, 15. The family enjoys traveling to competitions for Irish dancing, which the girls have been doing since the age of 5.

“Irish dance gives kids so much confidence,” Doorley says. “At an early age they are on stage, being judged by their own conduct.”

Doorley jokes that she is a pretty tough “dance mom.” She sets high standards.

She acknowledges she has high expectations on and off the job, and she strives to see the good, even in the face of so much bad.

“Even though I see violence and tragedy on a daily basis, it makes me appreciate even more the good in people and in our community. At the end of the day, if I—or my office—can ease someone’s pain, or show them that we and society care, it’s a successful day. In this profession you need to care; you need to care about humanity and the community. When you stop caring, and it becomes just another job, you need to move on.”

Doorley says she has no plans to move on. If voters do not re-elect her in 2015, she says she will continue her work as a prosecutor because seeking justice is the work she loves.

Lori Gable is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

Sandra Doorley
Position: Monroe County District Attorney
Age: 51
Education: B.A., SUNY at Albany, 1985; J.D., Syracuse University College of Law, 1988
Family: Husband, William Loftus; daughters Erin, 17, and Meghan, 15
Residence: Webster
Community service: Board member at Boys and Girls Clubs of Rochester Inc., Huther-Doyle Memorial Institute Inc. and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
Quote: “Even though I see violence and tragedy on a daily basis, it makes me appreciate even more the good in people and in our community. At the end of the day, if I, or my office, can ease someone’s pain, or show them that we and society care, it’s a successful day.”

12/19/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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