November 9, 2015
SPOTLIGHT ON ADJUNCT FACULTY: Q&A with Adjunct Professor Timothy Weiner
Alumnus and adjunct at Southwestern since 2003
Teaches: Forensic Evidence
Q: As Deputy Attorney General for the California Department of Justice, what kinds of cases do you handle?
A: As a state criminal prosecutor in the Appeals, Writs, and Trials section of the California Department of Justice, I work almost exclusively on felony cases, most often in the California Court of Appeal. However, one of the best things about this job is that my colleagues and I get to prosecute cases at every possible level. For example, right now I have a felony trial matter in the Santa Barbara County Superior Court, multiple felony cases in the California Court of Appeal, and several felony cases in the California Supreme Court. I also have several habeas corpus matters pending in the United States District Court. Having the opportunity to practice in so many different courts is virtually unheard of anyplace other than this office.
Q: Have there been any particularly memorable cases that you have worked on?
A: Just this month I argued a death penalty appeal before the California Supreme Court. The case involved the murder of a Long Beach police officer in 2000. The facts of the case are tragic. But having the opportunity to argue before the California Supreme Court was a great experience.
Q: What influenced your decision to pursue a career in the Attorney General’s Office?
A: When I decided to go to law school it was with the goal of becoming a criminal prosecutor. At the time, I assumed I would become a Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney. However, at the very end of my third year of law school Los Angeles County put a hiring freeze in place, which is what led me to apply for a job at the California Department of Justice. I figured I’d work at the Department of Justice for a few years and transfer over to the District Attorney’s office once the hiring freeze was lifted. As it turns out, this job was a perfect fit for me. After almost 15 years I still look forward to coming to work just about every day.
Q: How important is legal research and writing for the cases you try?
A: Legal research and writing skills are critically important. As a state prosecutor, we most often represent the People of the State of California as the respondent on appeal. That means we only get one shot at convincing the Court of our position – there are no reply briefs for us. When you combine that with the fact that probably 9 out of 10 cases waive oral argument, it’s easy to see how important good research and writing skills are. Time spent improving legal research and writing skills is time well spent, in my opinion.
Q: As a state prosecutor, how do you have the opportunity to help shape the law?
A: Being able to help shape the law is another great part of working at the California Department of Justice. All of the cases argued before the California Supreme Court are automatically published (and therefore citable as legal precedent), as are many cases we argue in the Court of Appeal. Also, when a deputy works on an issue that he or she feels is particularly important or may be of interest to other prosecutors, the deputy can request that the Court of Appeal publish the decision. In addition, we routinely brief and argue cases in the United States District Court, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and sometimes even the United States Supreme Court. In all of those cases it is the individual deputy who is making the legal arguments, drafting the briefs, and appearing at oral argument to argue the case.
Q: What do you find most rewarding about working on criminal cases?
A: That’s a tough question…there are so many rewarding parts of this job. Having the opportunity to work with some of the most talented prosecutors in California has been a very rewarding experience. I also greatly enjoy the sense of service I get from my work. And, of course, having the chance to appear in every level of court (trial, appellate, and supreme) is incredible.
Q: You’ve been teaching Forensic Evidence at Southwestern for almost a decade. How have changes in technology changed the field of forensics?
A: Courts and police departments have had to adjust their policies and procedures as technology has evolved. For example, there was a time when gunshot residue (or “GSR”) tests were routinely used in shooting investigations. If a GSR test came back positive, that was pretty bad news for the defendant. Today, GSR tests have fallen out of favor because of other forensic tests that are available to investigators. As technology changes, law enforcement and the legal community has to keep up with it.
Q: With the longstanding popularity of shows such as CSI, what are your students most surprised to learn about forensic evidence? What misconceptions about forensic evidence to you have to clear up?
A: Judge Greg Dohi (my Forensic Evidence teaching partner and a former Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney) and I always joke with our class that we wish investigators actually had access to those giant 100-inch LCD monitors you see on the CSI shows that can show real-time images of the suspect and simultaneously run searches through every DNA, fingerprint, and criminal records database in the United States. Those don’t exist! Joking aside, I think that one of the biggest misconceptions we have to clear up is the belief that forensic evidence is infallible; it’s not. There’s a saying in the computer sciences: Garbage In, Garbage Out. That holds true for forensic evidence. Forensic evidence can be a powerful tool, but only if the people who are performing the tests follow proper procedures and the underlying science is solid. That’s why cases that challenge the admissibility of scientific tests are so important – they ensure that “junk science” is kept out of the courtroom, which keeps the process reliable.
Q: During one of your lessons, you bring a variety of unloaded firearms to class. How does this enhance your lesson?
A: If you are going to work as a criminal prosecutor or criminal defense attorney, you will be dealing with firearms. Many law students have never handled a firearm or even seen one up close. Given that so many of the students in our class plan to practice criminal law, it’s important for us to be able to provide them with an opportunity in a safe, controlled environment to gain practical, hands-on knowledge about firearms and the evidentiary issues related to firearms they are most likely to encounter as lawyers.
Q: Have any of your students gone on to serve in the California Attorney General’s Office or other prosecutorial offices?
A: Absolutely. And many of our students have also become outstanding members of the defense bar.
Q: As a graduate of Southwestern, what are some of most interesting and exciting changes you’ve seen at the law school throughout the years?
A: I think that Southwestern has done an excellent job of making connections and building partnerships with the greater legal community. I’ve seen a real increase in the number of externships in all areas of the law that are made available to Southwestern students. I’m also impressed with how Southwestern has created an amazing learning and living environment centered on the new campus housing and the Bullocks Wilshire building.