Deputy District Attorney Susan Torrence Podcast Interview

Susan Torrence / Louis Goodman – Podcast Transcript
[00:00:00] Louis Goodman: Hello and welcome to Love Thy Lawyer. Where we talk to real lawyers about their lives in and out of the practice of law, how they got to be lawyers and what their experience has been. I’m Louis Goodman, the host of the show, and yes, I’m a lawyer. Nobody’s perfect.
She has an academic background in the hard sciences.
Between college and law school she worked at the rape crisis center in New Mexico. Since 1987 she has served in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office. Now a Senior Deputy DA. Her background includes numerous felony jury trials, motions, calendar assignments, and charging duties. She is an expert in sexual assault investigations and prosecutions, as well as matters involving [00:01:00] environmental protection.
Susan Torrence: Welcome to Love Thy Lawyer. It’s great to have you. Where in the DA’s office are you working right now?
Susan Torrence: Right now I’m at Wiley Manuel, which is the Oakland Branch of our many courthouses. And I am back there for my second time charging,
Louis Goodman:
Susan Torrence: I charge a variety of departments. Some of the smaller departments, Emeryville, Alameda, let’s see Piedmont, UC Berkeley PD, East Bay Regional Parks, but the most serious stuff I do is with the OPD SUV unit involving sex crimes, child abuse, child physical abuse.
And also, uh, what we call heat cases, which are human trafficking cases.
Louis Goodman: Where are you from originally?
Susan Torrence: I’m from a town in Illinois, Galesburg, Illinois, out in the middle of the cornfield.
Louis Goodman: Is that where you went to high school?
[00:02:00] Susan Torrence: That is where I went to high school.
Louis Goodman: What was that like?
Susan Torrence: Well, it was very interesting.
Galesburg was a very small town, very railroad employment base. There also is a small college there called Knox college. And my father taught there. He was a college professor as was my mother, but it was a very small town, only 35,000 people. So it was a very close knit. Yeah. I thought it was great. Our house was located at a very nice place.
We were the house on the edge of town. So behind my house, I had fields with cows and a Creek and a lot of the big forest. So I spent a lot of time growing up, catching frogs and climbing trees and picking berries. It was wonderful. Later, if you’re talking about high school, that was also great. I wasn’t very involved in high school, but it was a great place to go.
Louis Goodman: So when you got out of high school, where did you go to college?
Susan Torrence: I went to college at [00:03:00] a place called Lawrence University, which is in Appleton Wisconsin. That’s 30 miles South of Green Bay. It was a very small. Still is a very small liberal arts college in the same conference with some probably better-known school Carlton and Grinnell and Beloit and some other good schools.
Louis Goodman: So what did you take up at Lawrence College?
Susan Torrence: Well, I was actually intending to be pre-med. Uh, but then, yeah, but then organic chemistry just washed me out, boggled my mind. I couldn’t handle it. So I took my Science is to date my science studies to date there. And I designed my own major, which you could do a self-designed major.
And I did a very interdisciplinary major in biology, chemistry, and economics and government. And I called it environmental study. They didn’t have an environmental studies major back in those days. So I designed my own and I [00:04:00] thought it was very successful. I had a great time. Crossing a bunch of departments and focusing on those kinds of issues.
Louis Goodman: When did you start thinking about going to law school?
Susan Torrence: Well, that started when I left college and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And so I had this grand scheme and my grand scheme was to pack up my little Toyota Corolla and tour the West Coast. And I was going to stay for three to six months in each city.
And I had people in a lot of cities. I had people in Denver. I had people in Boulder. I had people in Albuquerque, Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco and Seattle. And so I was going to just take a big tour and just get odd jobs and do this and that, and the other thing, and march my way around the country and see where I wanted to live.
But then I got stuck in New Mexico for about five [00:05:00] years, which was great, how that happened. Uh, actually what happened was I fell in love with hot air ballooning and the particular balloon pilot, actually. And that’s what got me stuck for quite a while, but I also did something great there, which was, I started to work in with the rape crisis center in Santa Fe, which I had done before.
I had worked in Chicago for a bit for the Chicago Rape Crisis Service and did that again. I ended up in Santa Fe doing that for quite a few years. So to get around to your question, I often went to court with victim as in my job at the rape crisis center. And I would often sit in the audience and watch the Defense Attorney and the Prosecutor and knowing the case fairly intimately.
A thought dawned on me that, you know, as I was sitting there watching that. I could stand up right then and do a better [00:06:00] job than they were doing. So I guess that’s when it started. I also got to know the District Attorneys in Santa Fe fairly well, and they were very encouraging of me going to law school.
I think the other impetus was my parents. I had an absolutely fabulous relationship with my parents. I was very lucky to have the two of them. They were both caught, as I said before, they were both college professors. So, yes, I applied to Law School out in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and wanted to move at that point because Santa Fe was a very small town.
I got into a number of places and settled on University of San Francisco.
Louis Goodman: And how was the USF experience compared to living in Santa Fe?
Susan Torrence: Well, it was moving from, again a kind of a small town. Although filled with tourists, small town and into the big city, which was very exciting and fun. I lived in Chicago for a while, but this was really kind of [00:07:00] the first time I came to the big city.
Loved it. Enjoyed it. USF was, I think a very good school. I think I got a very good education there. It was interesting in that I was late coming to law school, having been out for a number of years and very early on in my law school career, we had a group of, I guess I want to call them elders back then.
I mean, most of the people that I hung out with in law school had also been out for a while and had a career. So we had a little different perspective than, you know, the 22-year-old coming up straight from college.
Louis Goodman: Do you think that having worked in a court related field gave you a certain focus that was advantageous in law?
Susan Torrence: No, I don’t think so because you know as well as I do, and it’s you probably your lawyers, listen, there’s no law school has nothing to do with taking the bar and taking the bar has nothing to do with practicing law. So I don’t [00:08:00] think there was anything having to do with my had been in a courtroom before that really.
Louis Goodman: What was your first legal job?
Susan Torrence: First legal job was, well, actually I did work a lot in law school. I worked for the City Attorney in San Francisco, had a great time there. Clerked for the law and motion Judge, which at that point was Lucy McCabe. And she was an absolute delight. She used to absolutely shock the attorneys coming in because every once in a while, when they wanted to hand her papers, she would pull out one of those grabby stick with an alligator’s mouth and she would tell them to put the papers in the alligator’s mouth.
And, you know, these uptight lawyers were just gas. It was quite entertaining. And she was very, very smart. She spent most of her time [00:09:00] in criminal actually. And she was also very encouraging of me pursuing a criminal career. So that was one job. Another job I had so Clerking for her and then I worked in the City Attorney’s Office as a Law Clerk, which was very interesting because we did a lot of Civil Rights Actions and viewing. That was very interesting. And let’s see, Oh, I worked for one of my professors got me a job. My first job, my first legal job in Alameda County, actually this was during law school. I actually worked for a Defense Attorney and that would be Al Gorelick. And I worked on a case in which a stepfather had molested his stepdaughter and she was in her mid-teens and she took the shotgun out of his, out of the closet one day and shot him. So she was being prosecuted for shooting the stepfather.
And so I [00:10:00] worked for the defense on that case. He got on the stand and took the fifth. So she got released, which was a good ending. Other than that, my first job was with the District Attorney’s Office. Remember I went to law school to be a DA, so I got very lucky in that a number of people guided me to the Alameda District Attorney’s Office.
And I was lucky enough to get hired.
Louis Goodman: So, what was your first assignment in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office?
Susan Torrence: My first assignment was doing DUI at Wiley Manuel. We had a Department 8 back then and it was an absolute zoo. There were two of us doing calendar and we would rotate one week doing calendar and one week doing the jury trial.
And we often had a lot of proper. Please. And it was [00:11:00] very interesting experience. It was a good introduction to dealing with defendants and managing a calendar and all that. Yeah.
Louis Goodman: Yeah. I remember when I worked in the old Department 8. I used to feel like I was the lawyer for the defendants. Cause you know, I’d sit there. I’d go explain things to them. I’d go over the plea forms and it was, yeah, you’re right. It was a real intro to client relations. In my sort of following your career in the DA’s Office and looking at the resume that you very kindly provided to me, it seems that there’s really two areas of focus that you’ve had in your, I don’t know, sort of mature years and the DA’s Office, which is, well, I mean, you know, we all kind of circle through the different assignments. And then I think people sort of alight in some sort of specialty area. And it seems to me that [00:12:00] you’ve really focused in, on the Sexual Assault area and the Environmental areas. Is that accurate?
Susan Torrence: Yeah. I spent, I think about seven years in our Environmental Division. One of the things I was thinking about after law school was Environmental Law.
So once I found out the District Attorney’s Office had an Environmental Unit, it was a no-brainer. So I spent seven years out at the Environmental Division, which again was totally fascinating. I got to dust off my brain for the chemistry and biology kind of stuff, which I really loved.
And in addition, it was also, well, it was a huge learning curve in a lot of different areas, which of course is always challenging and invigorating, but it was Civil as well as Criminal Cases. So I dipped my foot, probably up to the ankle, in Civil Cases. And I had a very good time out there.
It was a great mix of not very many court [00:13:00] appearances, but a lot of work and a lot of very intense and sometimes very, very large cases. We had one extremely large case where myself and two other District Attorney’s offices were lead counsel, but we had probably, I think, seven District Attorney’s Offices on the lead litigation team and another six or 10 District Attorney’s Office, kind of in the second tier.
And we ended up doing what was then named SBC, Southern Bell Corporation. As soon as we were done with our lawsuit, they renamed themselves back to AT & T. But we’ve got a $25 million judgment. It has to do with underground storage tanks. They had the law required any phone company to have underground diesel storage tanks, diesel fuel to fuel generators.
In case of an emergency [00:14:00] to keep the dial tone going. So they had, at that time, SBC now A T & T had over 500 underground storage tanks for diesel fuel in the state of California. Think about gas stations, those are also underground storage tanks, and there are lots and lots of regulations having to do with that.
And all those regulations are pollution and groundwater protection motivated. And so, you know, you’ve seen all the local non chain gas stations essentially go out of business and a big reason for that is all these regulations having to do with protecting the environment from the pollution, from the gas.
And it was especially ramped up when they’re still with letting gas anyway. So they had these 500 underground storage tanks for their backup generators. They were grossly out of compliance with the laws [00:15:00] and regulations having to do with the integrity of those texts. The statute says that it’s up to a $5,000 per day per tank penalty.
Yes. So that was a lot of work. That case probably took two or three years.
Louis Goodman: You start moving into the Sexual Assault area, because that seems to me to be like a pretty natural fit for you, seeing that you would, you know, come out of the Rape Crisis world.
Susan Torrence: Yeah. And, you know, I came to law school to be a DA and I became a DA to do Sexual Assault.
So it was, it was kind of already decided once I got there that I was going to be doing that or wanting to do that. And yeah, I did five tours at the courthouse at RCD doing felony trials and four of those were, is it five or six, I can’t remember. Anyway, about 15 years of my 32 year [00:16:00] career have been on Felony Trial staff and the majority of that time.
Well, all that time with the exception of my first rotation was on sex crimes.
Louis Goodman: Feel that kind of rotation takes an emotional toll on yourself.
Susan Torrence: Having done it repeatedly. And with a lot of individuals, it has a variety of effects and some are worse on some people and some are not so bad on some people. I personally, obviously am very, I withstand that very well. Because there’s a lot of social worker in me and I got a whole lot of satisfaction and a whole lot of juice from taking somebody to court and having them walk out after their court appearance and after cross-examination and looking at them and them telling me, Yeah, that wasn’t so bad. That’s kind of what I lived for.
Louis Goodman: So you’ve[00:17:00] done some teaching presenting about Sex Crimes Prosecution.
Susan Torrence: Yeah. Yes. Mostly through the California District Attorneys Association. We had a grant that was great for about three or four years, maybe where we taught four classes a year to Prosecutors throughout the State of California. I was a Technical Advisor and presented two or three sections in a weeklong course, four times a year. So that was a lot for those four years. I really enjoyed it. I enjoy it a lot. I mean, it’s a lot like closing argument in that you’re getting up and trying to get your points across. At the time I was doing that, I had been doing Sex Crimes for probably 10 years.
So, I had a lot of experience and I had run across a lot of issues and things had happened and so could share a lot. And I think that’s probably one of the most valuable things in teaching a skill such as [00:18:00] Courtroom Strategies and so forth is to have that experience-base to be able to, well, one time that happened and one time the other thing happened, and this is how I dealt with its kind of approach.
Louis Goodman: You’ve been in the DA’s office for quite a while.
Now, what do you really like about being an Alameda County District Attorney?
Susan Torrence: Well I can tell you right now, one of the things I really miss in charging is contact with the public. It is just wonderful to interact with people that you would not be friends with, but certainly in being their advocate in court, you get very, as you know, from being a Defense Attorney, you get very close to people.
You get to know them on a very intimate basis. It’s a very intense relationship that you, I mean, I’ve had more intense relationships with witnesses and victims than I have had with, you know, a lot of people I consider to be friends and my coworkers. I mean, [00:19:00] I know, you know, Lou that the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office is very highly regarded in that for, I was lucky to join that office.
The people in that office, and I hear this from Defense Attorneys who travel many counties all over the Bay Area and beyond, that the Alameda District Attorney’s Office and the District Attorneys will doing the day-to-day work in that office are extremely fair and I’ve been very pleased to work with all of them.
It’s been just, and continues to be just a very, very wonderful place to work.
Louis Goodman: How has practicing law, criminal prosecution met or differed from your expectations of it.
Susan Torrence: I would say that it is probably met again. Remember I was in a courtroom and hanging out with DAs before I went to law school. So I had a pretty intimate view of the nitty gritty of the courtroom. So I, I think I really knew what I was getting into.
[00:20:00] Louis Goodman: What do you think is the best bit of advice that you’ve ever got ?
Susan Torrence: For my life or for my profession? Well, for my profession, it’s got to be one of my very dear mentors Buzz DaVega who you knew.
Well, I’m sure. It’s a little flippant, but he always used to say never let the crook ruin your day. And you know, I would expand that a little bit to say, never let the crook ruin your day or a Judge ruin your day or yeah, et cetera, et cetera. But it was an attitude.
I can only speak to my personal experience and my personal experience in the Alameda County DA’s Office is, my answer would be yes. I often hear and always have heard from my office that our job, this was the mantra when I was hired and continued for many, [00:21:00] many years is to do the right thing.
Louis Goodman: Let me shift gears here a little bit.
What’s your family life like and how has practicing law affected that?
Susan Torrence: I have two children. They are now 30 and 25. Wow. I am married. I have been married for 32 years. And I must say that probably the best thing about my family life and my professional life merged together has been the supportiveness of my husband.
He knows that when I’m in trial, he doesn’t expect anything out of me. I am off the table as far as getting anything done or doing anything.
Louis Goodman: What other sorts of things do you like to do? What sort of recreational activities do you participate in?
Susan Torrence: I kayak a little bit, go for a lot of walks, especially having recently moved back to San Francisco.
[00:22:00] That’s about it. I’ve got a big garden. Yeah. That’s about it.
Louis Goodman: If you came into some real money, billion dollars, what, if anything, would you change in your life?
Susan Torrence: In my life? I would buy three houses, one in France, one in Manhattan and one in the tropics somewhere. I would give my kids some money and then I’d start doing charity giving and travel.
Louis Goodman: Where would you travel to?
Susan Torrence: I travel anywhere I haven’t been.
Louis Goodman: Tell me about some places that you have been.
Susan Torrence: I went to Africa. Yeah, I actually, I got over there through teaching about Sexual Assault. I taught the Prosecutors in the country of Zambia a week-long conference. It was a couple of years ago.
And it was held at a conference center where everybody lived there for the week. And I helped develop the curriculum and taught a number of classes over the [00:23:00] course of that week. And these were all of the Regional Prosecutors for the country of Zambia. It was an absolutely wonderful experience.
Louis Goodman: Let’s say you had a magic wand, you could wave it over one thing, the legal world, society in general, the world. I mean, anything? What, one thing would you change?
Susan Torrence: Stop the abuse of females in all manner, physical & sexual. There needs to be much more feminine in the world.
Louis Goodman: Susan, thank you so much for joining me today on Love Thy Lawyer. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you as I usually enjoy talking to you. Thanks so much for being here.
Susan Torrence: Well, Lou. Thank you very much. I enjoyed talking to you as well. And then have fun with it. This project of yours.
Louis Goodman: That’s it for today’s episode of Love Thy Lawyer. Many thanks to my guests, [00:24:00] who’ve contributed their time and wisdom and make this show possible.
Thanks as always to Joel Katz for music, Brian Matheson for technical support and Tracey Harvey. I’m Louis Goodman.
Susan Torrence: no, I didn’t really have an answer to that because there’s so much, there’s so many things and so many aspects it’s harder to know. I don’t like that. I don’t like that question so much.

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