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The Accidental Jurist

Leonard Peltier. Stephen Miles. Now the witness who might break the Ramsey case. Itís no wonder Lee Hill thinks he needs to pack a pistol.

All the cloak-and-dagger stuff rubbed salt into Hill's wounds. But he liked his client, a former fighter pilot. The case was ultimately dismissed as a clear attempt by the woman to extort money from the client, and Hill made a lifelong friend of the defector.

But cases like that, where Hill derived some job satisfaction and actually liked his client, were few and far between. Too often his job was to stonewall and quibble until an injured person received far less compensation than was justified. Disgusted, he quit after a year.

He didn't last much longer when he joined a plaintiff's firm in San Diego. This time, instead of sneering at injured clients, he found himself working for partners who seemed overjoyed when a prospective client rolled in who'd been paralyzed or maimed. It was just the flip side of the same awful coin -- a game lawyers played at the expense of either the injured party or the people who paid for insurance.

Hill applied for a position with the San Diego District Attorney's Office. His grandfather's case had demonstrated the power a prosecutor's office had over people's lives. Just as a dishonorable prosecutor had injured the man he loved, he figured that one with good intentions could accomplish a lot on the other side.

While he was with the district attorney's office, he was "drafted" to work for the major narcotics unit in cooperation with federal prosecutors, which meant he was cross-sworn as a special assistant U.S. Attorney. When he was in that position he heard that former Harvard professor and '60s LSD guru Timothy Leary was appearing at a bookstore to sign his latest work. Hill drove to the bookstore, where he introduced himself to Leary as having a mutual friend in William Burroughs. As a lark, Hill handed him his business card. Leary broke out laughing. He thought it was terribly funny that a friend of one of the country's most notorious junkies was an assistant deputy district attorney with a narcotics task force.

But as a deputy district attorney, Hill had opportunities to do good work. The task force took a lot of dangerous criminals off the streets. However, a lot of his work was in asset forfeiture, which allows the government to seize property and funds linked to a defendant's drug business. It was a dangerous job. Many of the defendants, including gang members, thought of the forfeiture program as an "extra" punishment, and Hill began receiving so many threats that he applied for and was granted the right to carry a concealed handgun.

But he also came to view the forfeiture program as "evil work." Not when it took the ill-gotten gains of a violent felon, but when he'd seize some little old lady's car because her son the drug dealer had purchased it for her -- or when he confiscated the house of a couple of old hippies who were caught growing pot in their backyard.

Hill was relieved to be transferred to the Jurisdictions Unified for Drug Gang Enforcement -- an experimental program combining local, state and federal agencies that targeted gang members who violated terms of probation. At times, the JUDGE unit would sweep into a neighborhood and arrest dozens of gang members. He often had to go with the police officers, wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a gun.

It was better than the forfeiture work, but at the same time he was expected to ignore certain aspects of police behavior that violated the rights of the suspects -- another lesson he would carry into the future. Other lessons, like the pattern of falling dominoes, would become more clear years later.

During this time, Hill also received training in prosecuting hate crimes. One aspect of that training was to read Talked to Death, Steven Singular's book about the murder of Denver radio personality Alan Berg by white supremacists. Another domino fell when he began paying attention to one of the cases in the San Diego DA's office. It involved a man named Dale Akiki, who was accused of ritualized torture and sexual assaults on children at a church day camp. The case was lost because an overzealous prosecution team relied on "repressed memory development," in which a therapist used hypnosis to supposedly draw lost memories of assaults out of some of the children. Such techniques are fraught with danger, because hypnosis can plant "memories" of events that never occurred, which the defense was able to demonstrate at Akiki's trial. The jury ended up rejecting the prosecution's case as a result.

The longer he worked for the prosecutor's office, the more Hill felt disabused of the notion that his role was to facilitate justice, whichever way the chips fell. His supervisor frequently reminded him that "it's easy to convict the guilty. It takes a really good prosecutor to convict the innocent."

Recalling what such a philosophy had done to his grandfather, Hill finally quit the district attorney's office in 1993 and went back into private practice.


Hill hurries into the federal courthouse in downtown Denver. He's late, but he has to stop at the security checkpoint and make an announcement. "I have a gun," he says quietly.

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