People typically agree that Elder Abuse is a horrifying crime and that those who abuse elders should be punished. But what if you've never investigated an elder abuse case? What if you've just been handed your first elder abuse case as a prosecutor?
While all the typical rules of law and processes for evidence gathering apply, elder abuse cases can have unique considerations that can prove challenging if elder abuse isn't your area of specialty.
Check out this recorded webinar, as Paul Greenwood, Deputy District Attorney, San Diego DA Office and Head of the Elder Abuse Prosecution Unit will be taking your questions about:
- the challenges in prosecuting or investigating elder abuse cases,
- addressing the challenges of elderly witnesses,
- distinguishing between natural causes and abuse,
- building collaborative investigative approaches,
- creating multi-disciplinary teams,
- and other special topics like working with coroners, probate courts, and guardianship as they relate to elder abuse.
Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): The AMA, or the "Ask Me Anything format" is a new type of webinar for us. In fact, it was your idea. What made you think of this format idea, and how do you think it would benefit our audience?
Paul Greenwood: I got the idea from my son who had worked for Reddit – a lot of younger people are familiar with Reddit, and one of their successful programs has been this Ask Me Anything feature where they selected an interesting character and that person was interviewed via spontaneous questions from anybody out there on the internet. It gave people the opportunity to ask that one nagging question that they were curious about.
People have a whole range of questions in their minds but sometimes when a presenter presents, the attendee doesn't get the chance to ask the question because the presenter doesn't leave enough time; or that the topic that the presenter talked about isn't necessarily relevant to the particular question that the audience member was contemplating.
I'm the kind of person that loves spontaneity; maybe it's a weakness on my part, but I don't always need much time to respond to a question. I just give people my intuitive gut response. It may sound a little arrogant, but I do wonder – because I have been prosecuting felony elder abuse cases for 22 years – maybe there are some insights I have learned in that time that I can share if people have a particular type of question.
…These cases are viable, they are provable,
and they have jury appeal.
JCH: Thinking back over all the prosecutors you've coached, or advised regarding elder abuse cases, what have been some of their biggest challenges?
Paul: I think the biggest challenge has been how to overcome the initial instinctive reaction that elder abuse cases are somehow very difficult and challenging, and time-consuming. I am concerned that a prosecutor who is new to this area may question whether he or she may ever be successful prosecuting such cases. So the challenge is to persuade a younger prosecutor that these cases are viable, are provable, and that they have massive jury appeal.
For me, one of the biggest encouragements has been to see the excitement and passion that starts emanating from these other prosecutors when they actually believe you when you say …you know what…most of these cases honestly are not that difficult to prove. You just have to issue these cases and then stand back and see how the victims portray themselves in court and watch how they grab the attention of jurors and judges. These cases make themselves for you thanks to the victims.
And so it's been really exciting to see other prosecutors finally accept my word that these cases are provable.
I would say to young prosecutors, find something that you're passionate about.
Just find some area of the law that you care about
and you just don't go through the motions about it.
JCH: That's awesome. Which types of elder abuse cases do you think are the most challenging to prosecute?
Paul: The ones that I had the hardest time with are physical neglect cases. The reason is that one of my earliest jury trials involved physical neglect by a caregiver of an elder. The jury did the right thing by convicting. But afterwards, the judge for whom I had the utmost respect, called me into the chambers and said, "Paul, I really am concerned, be careful. When you prosecute these kinds of neglect cases you don't want to send the wrong message."
And I said, "What does that mean, judge?"
He said, "Well, we all should bear some kind of responsibility for wanting to take care of our loved ones who are elderly. What I don't want people to think in San Diego is that if you take care of somebody and something goes wrong that the DA is necessarily going to come down hard on you."
And that really stuck with me. I found from that time on that I had to be very careful as to the types of cases of neglect that I prosecuted. But also, I found that for whatever reason, jurors do not seem to get as angry about the neglect of an older adult as they do about the neglect of an animal. And I don't know the reason for that.
There can also be some sympathy for the defendant. The suspect will often say, "At least, I was trying to do something whereas my siblings didn't care about mom. They didn't even come over. I was trying my best; I didn't do a very good job of it. But at least I tried."
So there's that inbuilt sympathy factor that sometimes weighs in on these kinds of cases.
Jurors do not seem to get as angry about the neglect of an older adult
as they do about the neglect of an animal.
JCH: As you reflect back on your career, what advice or lessons learn did you experience early on that helped shape who you are not only as a prosecutor but as a leading subject matter expert in the field of elder abuse?
Paul: What I learned early on is that it's good to be passionate about something. I was very fortunate that not only did I come into a job where I was proud to be known as a deputy district attorney. But when I was told that I was going do elder abuse cases, after about a year or so, I began to discover that it became more than just my job. It became something very personal, and something which I believed in.
This has been a blessing for me – that I was told to do this particular area of prosecution that I knew nothing about and it developed into such a passion. Even though I've been doing it for 22 years, I can honestly tell you that there's not a day where I'm thinking I wish I could be prosecuting gang cases… or narcotics cases… or something else. I'm just so fortunate.
I would say to young prosecutors…. find something that you're passionate about. That is my message to law students whenever I get the chance to go and talk to law schools. You have to find an area that you believe in whole-heartedly. You may become a passionate public defender and that's fine too. I'm not one of these people who say you should only become a prosecutor. We need passionate public defenders. Just find some area of the law that you care about and don't just go through the motions about it.
And I try to make this my rule – never ever stop learning. Never ever stop asking questions. And even though I've been doing this for 22 years, there's so much more out there that I don't know, that I need to know, and that's what I try to do every day. Find something that yesterday I didn't know …that today I can say, "That's really interesting, I hope I can apply that."
JCH: You found your calling.
Paul: I think I did. Through no design on my part, it was given to me and my response was to recognize that this was an absolute gift and run with it.