Like 32 other county prosecutors in similar shoes, Craig Van Rooyen’s work requires a complicated juggling act: keeping the community safe and holding those who have committed crimes accountable while avoiding wrongful accusations.
Though his job is not extraordinary as prosecution work goes — despite handling some unusual and controversial cases — Van Rooyen’s experience provides insight into the thinking that goes into being a courtroom enforcer of the law. Among other things, the job entails making tough decisions that determine whether people spend time in jail.
No matter the nature of the cases, which can be heinous and gruesome, or the great amount of influence that prosecutors have, the goal should never be “to win at all costs,” Van Rooyen said.
Well-prepared, serious, persuasive and humble, Van Rooyen displays traits of an effective prosecutor, according to colleagues.
“You want the evidence to be speaking to the jury, and Craig knows how to do that very well,” said Chief Deputy District Attorney Jerret Gran. “A court trial should not be a personality contest between attorneys.”
It was just five years ago that Van Rooyen had an office with a view in a high-rise building in San Francisco as a partner in a prestigious civil litigation firm. But he left the job to do his current work.
“With some legal work, you feel like you’re just pushing along files,” said Van Rooyen, who also had a four-year stint as a prosecutor in Riverside County. “I wanted to reconnect with the human aspect of law. Speaking up for victims who have been bullied is satisfying.”
Van Rooyen said he takes particular satisfaction in helping victims who might otherwise be ignored.
“Whether it’s the homeless guy who has been assaulted, the low-income family victimized by gang violence or a domestic violence victim who doesn’t know how to stick up for herself, everybody deserves the same protection under the law,” he said. “Ironically, I’m sure a public defender would say his or her greatest satisfaction is speaking up for marginalized people accused of crimes. And I don’t dispute that as a noble calling also.”
A cautious approach
Since starting as a local prosecutor in 2007, Van Rooyen has handled a wide variety of cases.
Every prosecutor has a different style, but Van Rooyen’s polite, affable and seemingly effortless approach helps a jury to “understand the evidence, look at it carefully and go back and discuss it logically,” Gran said.
The tall, thin man who dresses in neatly pressed suits often wears an expression in court of concern and thoughtfulness — and listens with careful attention to detail.
His work has included the prosecution of a group of college students whose hazing resulted in the death of Cal Poly freshman Carson Starkey; Dan De Vaul, a high-profile San Luis Obispo rancher charged with property code violations; and a 16-year-old charged as an adult with rape.
Van Rooyen has developed a reputation for being conscientious and fair.
“Prosecutors have a lot of responsibility to the people of California, crime victims, law enforcement, as well as to reach out across the table to defense attorneys professionally,” said defense attorney Paul Phillips, who recently opposed Van Rooyen in a three-strikes burglary case. “Craig is very, very fair. He’s a good servant of the people. He doesn’t have a hidden agenda.”
Scott and Julia Starkey were at home in Austin, Texas, on Dec. 2, 2008, when they got a parent’s worst call.
A San Luis Obispo County coroner told them their 18-year-old son, Carson, a Cal Poly student, had died from what they later learned was alcohol poisoning after a fraternity party.
It would take two years before four members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon were convicted of the hazing that caused his death.
Van Rooyen handled the case and spoke often with the Starkeys — answering numerous questions on legal strategy and what the next step would entail.
“Craig’s door was always open, and we knocked and called often,” Scott Starkey said. “I compare it to a doctor who takes the time to sit with you in person and really explain things versus a doctor who rushes you out the door.”
The Starkeys also credit Van Rooyen and other local law enforcement officials for helping them deal with the stress of the criminal process.
The case involved challenging legal arguments that addressed the state’s new hazing law. Van Rooyen recalls staying up until midnight some nights to write legal briefs, which appellate judges sided with him on.
“It was hard fought, and legal arguments went all the way up to the California Supreme Court,” Van Rooyen said. “You had the parents who were bereft and these college guys who were responsible, but they didn’t commit murder.”
Despite the convictions, some from the public still viewed the sentences as too light. The most severe of them was a penalty of 120 days in County Jail and three years informal probation.
But Van Rooyen and the Starkeys were satisfied that the convictions made the community safer.
Part of criminal prosecution is “general deterrence of criminal activity and changing behavior,” said Van Rooyen, whose sentiment was echoed by Carson’s father.
“The four hazing convictions sent a strong message that hazing is wrong and won’t be tolerated,” Scott Starkey said.
The public sentiment of support for the Starkeys and their loss was much different than the response to the prosecution of rancher Dan De Vaul.
Many felt that trying De Vaul was unfair — they felt sympathy for him because he housed local homeless in violation of property codes.
After a conviction on two of nine counts, an empathetic juror made the highly unusual choice to bail De Vaul out of County Jail while he appealed the case.
“The easy thing to do would have been to ignore the problems and let his building situation continue,” Van Rooyen said. “But our job requires addressing controversial facts when they arise. Allowing people to continue living in illegal and unsafe facilities would have been irresponsible.”
Ironically, Van Rooyen helps the homeless as a volunteer with his wife, Mimi, a local orthopedic surgeon. With members of their Seventh-day Adventist Church, they serve hot breakfasts at the Prado Day Center.
“I’m sure under different circumstances, it would be interesting to talk to Dan De Vaul,” Van Rooyen said. “He goes out on a limb for a lot of people who others don’t go out on a limb for.”
Using the evidence
Despite a reputation for fairness, Van Rooyen hasn’t hesitated to seek some severe prison penalties — including a 24-year sentence for 16-year-old Oillie Tinoco, who was charged as an adult for a home-invasion rape.
Another case resulting in a conviction for a gang-related shooting outside a party in Paso Robles is expected to conclude in a multiyear sentence.
Van Rooyen said that it’s never his mission to make a case a personal vendetta; his decisions are based on the evidence and evenhandedness.
“Everybody has a different idea of what’s fair,” he said. “People disagree with my judgment calls every day — whether it’s a police officer who is upset because I didn’t file a case or a defense attorney who thinks I’m being too harsh on his client. It comes back to making decisions based on evidence and treating people with dignity.”