SEBRING – Every working day, Richard Castillo’s focus is on accused murderers, child abusers, rapists and thieves.
He sees cases where people have left children in hot cars to die, children neglected, victims who have been robbed and those who have been victimized in many other ways.
But despite all the sorrow and tragedy, Castillo isn’t one to cry with the victims or openly share their grief. And Castillo said its not because he’s unaffected by the tragedies experienced by those for whom he’s seeking justice.
Its that Castillo believes that being somewhat detached and less emotionally involved helps him bring about that justice.
“If I get emotionally involved, I’m not going to be as effective,” he said.
Although sometimes victims feel he isn’t emotionally involved the way he should be, Castillo said, that isn’t true. He cares about the people involved.
“I’m not going to care the way they do,” he said, adding that the victims in the cases are not people he knew on a personal level.
Castillo, who has been a prosecutor for 15 years, is one of eight assistant state attorneys in Highlands County. Of those, five, including Castillo, deal with felony cases and two deal with misdemeanors. Steve Houchin, the assistant state attorney in charge of the office, also handles some cases.
But most cases never reach Houchin or the other assistant state attorneys without being reviewed by Christine Pletcher, another assistant attorney, who beyond dealing with arraignment is not usually seen in the courtroom.
Pletcher reviews cases submitted by law enforcement officers. In some respects, she’s like an editor at a newspaper. While the editor determines if the reporter needs to add more information or interview someone else for the article, Pletcher reviews cases in a somewhat similar manner. She helps determine whether the law enforcement officers have presented sufficient probable cause to file charges.
Houchin said the office deals with 1,144 felony cases a year. There’s been a gradual increase in that number, he said. And that’s beside the misdemeanor and traffic cases.
Despite his office having that many cases, Houchin said, he’s not worried one will get lost in the shuffle. Each case has a number and that number can be looked up in a computer. And the Highland County Court Clerk’s Office notifies Houchin’s office when a case is on the docket.
“That (losing a case doesn’t happen),” he said. “We might want it to happen sometimes, but it doesn’t,” he added with a smile.
Generally, each prosecutor handles at any given time 130 to 140 cases, Houchin said. “It’s a constant flow.”
The office maintains hundreds of folders, representing the many active cases. But, before too long, he said, most everything will be done by computer.
Besides the ongoing task of seeking justice for victims and the community, one of the major challenges faced by the attorney general’s office is that no one has had a raise for years, he said.
It makes it harder to retain good prosecutors, he said, adding that when someone leaves there’s more difficulty in filling the position.
“We have a lot of attorneys around who are ex-prosecutors, he said.
But prosecutors also say they get satisfaction from their jobs that goes beyond being paid.
Meghan Gomez, an assistant state attorney, said she didn’t become an assistant state attorney with the idea of making a lot of money.
“You have to love it,” she said.
Gomez said that as a prosecutor the choice is to do what is best for the community and justice, even if that may help the defendant in some instances. That, along with helping victims, gives her the type of satisfaction that doesn’t come from money, she said.
She said the State Attorney’s Office practices what it preaches in many ways. For example, she said, she and other prosecutors don’t hide evidence that might help the defendant.
In the vast majority of cases, she said, the prosecution makes a plea offer to defense, one which considers the severity of the crime and the person’s criminal record.
If the defense rejects the offer, the state is always ready to go to trial, she said.
Both Gomez and Castillo said that prosecuting cases is not an exact science, as there’s no guarantee that witnesses won’t change their testimony or suddenly refuse to testify.
Castillo said that one reason he prefers to be a prosecutor, as opposed to a defense attorney, is that he believes law enforcement does a good job. By and large, he said, he believes that law enforcement officers, while not perfect, arrest the right suspects.
When he prosecutes a case, he said, he believes the defendant is guilty, although some charges may not hold up. Sometimes, Castillo said, he sees some mitigating factors for the defendant and he has the option to reduce charges.
If he were a defense attorney, he said, he would have to represent people he knew were guilty. He would have to be concerned about someone who’s guilty walking free.
Besides the prosecutors and the police, people in the community are a key to the success of the system. Too often, he said, people don’t want to be involved and give information to police or testify at trial.
“We can have criminals control us or we can control the criminals,” he said. “When people do the right thing, crime goes down.”
But when they refuse to testify, “they’re hurting themselves. They’re not punishing us.”