Palo Alto gets new top district attorney
Cindy Hendrickson has prosecuted some of county's most gut-wrenching cases
The doorknob tag on Supervising Deputy District Attorney Cindy Hendrickson's office displays an image of the Three Stooges — Moe, Larry and Curly — in prison garb.
"Warning: Occupants are lifers with nothing to lose," it reads.
That perspective could sum up Hendrickson's dedication to her job. At 46, she has handled some of the county's toughest, most gut-wrenching work, including long stints prosecuting sexual-abuse and elder-fraud cases. And she once risked speaking out publicly against her boss, former District Attorney Dolores Carr — a move that could have stalled her career.
Hendrickson is a 17-year veteran of the Santa Clara County District Attorney's office. She took over as top DA at the North County courthouse in Palo Alto last October.
Hendrickson once worked as a litigator in private practice for a small San Francisco law firm. But after five years she realized it wasn't for her, she said. These days, when budgets and staffing are cut at the DA's office, Hendrickson doesn't fret that she could have had a career in a large law firm making big money, she said.
"There's no amount of money that will make any difference," she said.
Like others who pursue civil service, Hendrickson said that what she loves so much about the job is the difference she gets to make in people's lives every day.
"When I was in private practice I worked for wonderful people. But a good day was a day where you billed a certain amount of time," she said.
She recalled a time early in her career when a snafu nearly kept a defendant from being with her seven children on Thanksgiving. The woman had numerous traffic offenses, and her attorney had arranged to clear them up before the holiday. But one offense slipped through the cracks. The woman was a passenger in a vehicle that was stopped by police, and the offense showed up as a warrant for her arrest.
"It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. ... We got to sort it out. She was still held accountable for what she had done, but we were able to get her home with her family. It was something tangible that affected somebody's life. I remember getting such a charge. It was the first time I felt that what I had done had positively affected another human being," Henderson said, sitting in the DA's office library on Grant Avenue, surrounded by bound volumes on criminal law.
Being a DA means more than just putting bad guys behind bars, she said: "It always means being open to both sides of the story."
Hendrickson supervises six attorneys — two more are expected to be hired this year. She said a DA's job is focused on "making sure the defendant is held accountable but that they're treated fairly and they're only held accountable for what they did — no more and maybe no less."
And to make sure that the victim gets compensation and some form of redress.
"But the victim is not our client. And sometimes victims disagree with us about what a sentence is going to be, and we can't make sentences stiffer in the cases where the victims want more and lighter in the cases where the victims are more forgiving. We need to hold the defendant accountable in the way that other similarly situated defendants would be held accountable in Santa Clara County," she said.
Hendrickson's sense of equality is heavily influenced by her upbringing in a multiracial family of 10 siblings. Her parents adopted five biracial children from Korea, Vietnam and the U.S. Some of the children were the progeny of American servicemen during the wars, she said.
"We thought we were completely normal," she said, recalling camping trips and outings with other multiracial families in Virginia.
"It makes me sensitive to issues of race — and not only actual prejudice but the appearance of prejudice," she said.
Such an appearance, whether intentional or accidental, has an "insidious effect," she said, recalling a personal experience.
Twenty years ago, Hendrickson was stopped by Bay Area police at gunpoint in a case of mistaken identity regarding a stolen car. The story seemed sketchy, but she didn't dispute it and went on her way. But the same incident occurred to one of her sisters, an African American, she said.
"That experience for her was a way more traumatic experience than it was for me," she recalled. That kind of disparity has Hendrickson rooting out any appearance of prejudice, she said.
"When a person of color feels they didn't get a fair shake it's always going to be in their head: 'Is it because I'm a person of color?'" she said.
She brings that sensitivity to the appearance of prejudice to her work. Three years ago she took the time to discuss with a defendant, a black man, her reasons for seeking bail against him when others being arraigned did not get the same arrangement. He happened to be the only African-American defendant in court that day.
His defense attorney told Hendrickson that the man was extremely upset over the perceived disparity. Hendrickson spoke to the man with his attorney present to explain her reasons for requesting the bail.
"It was important that he know," she said.
But her sensitivity to prejudice doesn't make her a pushover. Hendrickson once prosecuted a serial con artist who, three weeks after being released from prison, had defrauded an elderly man. She sought charges that would result in a maximum sentence.
The man would only get eight years at most for the crime against his elderly victim and about half of that time would probably be waived, since white-collar crimes don't garner as much punishment, she said.
So Hendrickson tried the case as a first-degree burglary, since the crime was committed in the house. With someone present in the home at the time, Hendrickson argued, it was a "hot" burglary. She needed to convince a jury that the man entered the home with the intent to steal from the victim.
The con man had many victims, and Hendrickson used the testimony of other victims to prove he had a pattern of thefts that amounted to an intention to steal.
A jury convicted him, and he was sentenced to 15 years and 8 months in prison. He will also be a "three striker" when he is released from prison, so if he commits the crime again he could receive even more time, she said.
Hendrickson didn't start out with the ambition of becoming an attorney. She was a liberal arts major at Stanford University in search of a profession that would help pay off her student loans, she said. She had liked chemistry while in high school and tried economics, but those didn't fit. In her junior year she took the LSAT and scored in the 98th percentile, she said.
"I decided to go to law school thinking I wasn't going to be a lawyer," she said, figuring she might get into politics or work as a lobbyist as her father had done.
But after clerking for attorney Johnnie Cochran, "I started to get more into thinking, 'Well, I guess the law stuff's kind of fun after all,'" she said.
During her five years in private practice, she kept encountering friends who did public-interest law and made half the salary she made, she said. Hendrickson felt jealous, "because they got to do stuff that mattered every day."
Then she received what she said was "the great break of my life." She was called as a witness in an insurance case. Dennis Burns, now Palo Alto's police chief, was the investigating officer, she said.
After the trial she was recommended to the DA's office and offered a job, she said.
Ironically one of the most difficult situations an employee could find herself in turned out to be one of the easiest for Hendrickson, she said: Publicly supporting then-candidate for DA Jeff Rosen over her boss, Dolores Carr, during Carr's re-election campaign.
Hendrickson recalled that time emotionally.
"I'm so passionate about the honor that we have as DAs to do the right thing and the responsibility that we have as DAs to do the right thing, that when I see people that I think are not using their power and their position to do the right thing, it just — it frustrates me. And to the extent that I can do something or try to do something to speak out about that, then I will — and I did," she said.
As an upper-tier attorney she knew she could not be fired, but she might never be promoted, she said. It was a risk she was willing to take.
"I never grew up in a culture where it was the most important thing to make the most money and have the highest position or anything like that," she said.
She recalled the words of father, a government lobbyist for Los Angeles: "I love it when I go and approach congressmen and senators. They know I am passionate about the issues and the people I'm representing, and they don't expect me to have a check in my hand."
"He made those choices — financial choices," she said, noting it must have been difficult at times with a family of 13 to feed.
"I wanted to be in a situation where ... I was free, completely free to do what I thought was the right thing," she said.
So to position herself for the possible fall out, she asked for a job in the sex-crimes unit — one of the most emotionally demanding positions, and one that most other attorneys would probably not covet, she said.
"The thing that put me over the top to come out was when (Rosen) got attacked for his ethics in the paper.
"That was so unfounded and so inaccurate, I said, 'That can't be unaddressed.'"
Hendrickson stopped, holding back tears.
"You need to do what you can do so you can sleep at night," she said quietly.
In the end, it comes down to treating people with dignity. Whether it is a victim or a defendant, Hendrickson said her goal is fairness. At the end of the day, win or lose, if she has achieved that goal everyone will know.
"A defendant feeling you were fair to them — that's important — regardless of what sentence they got."
Thanks don't come with the territory often, though, and it's easy to burn out. But Hendrickson said she takes wins and defeats in stride.
"You have to take satisfaction in knowing you did a good job and you don't need anyone to say, 'Thank you,'" she said.
But when accolades come, she said she cherishes those moments: "When something goes really well, I try to really live into it."
She recalled an example that still brings tears to her eyes.
It was an elder-fraud case of a 96-year-old woman who was scammed on in a real estate deal after having surgery. Hendrickson got back $500,000 — nearly all the woman had lost — through restitution.
"I got a message from her one night when she had gotten a final payment and she was saying, 'Thank you for everything you've done.' And then at the end she said, 'I love you.'"
Hendrickson grinned at the memory.
"It had been several years since I had a victim express appreciation, and it just touched me. I thought, 'I'm just going to live on this a while.'"
WATCH THE VIDEO
An excerpt of the Weekly's interview with Supervising Deputy District Attorney Cindy Hendrickson has been posted on Palo Alto Online.
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.