Wagstaffe to become San Mateo County's next DA

San Mateo County Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe has been elected the county's next top prosecutor after more than 30 years at the district attorney's office.

Wagstaffe ran unopposed in Tuesday's primary election and will take office in January. He succeeds District Attorney Jim Fox, who has held the position since 1983.

Surrounded by pictures of victims and their family members from trials he has prosecuted, Wagstaffe said in a recent interview that he expects little will change when he becomes district attorney.

“We have a similar philosophy,” Wagstaffe said of himself and Fox.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the primary goal was punishment, he said. It wasn't until the turn of the century that re-entry and reform became a focus for convicted criminals, he said.

Wagstaffe has deep roots in San Mateo County; he grew up in Menlo Park and now lives next door to the home where he was raised.

He was already interning at the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office when he graduated from University of California Hastings College of the Law in 1977.

He became an assistant district attorney supervising misdemeanor cases in 1981 and was placed in charge of felony cases in 1986. In 1991, he was named chief deputy district attorney.

Wagstaffe said his favorite part of practicing law is spending time in courtrooms, and he said he became a prosecutor because he wanted to convict criminals.

“I like being an advocate for victims,” Wagstaffe said. “Being a prosecutor is the best job a lawyer can have. You have one client: the people. And you have one responsibility: to do what is right.”

Throughout his career he has prosecuted more than 30 murder trials; he sought the death penalty in four of them. Several of his cases have been turned into books.

Wagstaffe enjoys being reminded of his work each day by the pictures of victims and their family members in his office. He can rattle off intricate details about their lives.

“The most important part (of my job) is working with victims' families,” he said.

Wagstaffe said he still wants to try cases once he becomes district attorney.

“As a manager, you can get lost in management and forget what your troops are going through,” he said.

Wagstaffe's next case, which begins today, is the retrial of Mohammed Haroon Ali, 35, who was convicted in San Mateo County Superior Court in 2001 for the murder of his girlfriend and the daughter of an Oakland Raiders Hall of Fame football player, Tracey Biletnikoff, 20.

Ali's conviction was overturned, however, by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2009, which said prosecutors violated Ali's constitutional rights by dismissing at least one black potential jurors from a jury pool for racist reasons.

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