A SLO County DA hasn't personally prosecuted a case in 20 years. Dan Dow just changed that

San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow questions the alleged victim in a June 2018 preliminary hearing for Herbert George Connor, 73, of Cambria, who faced felony charges of assault with intent to commit rape, sexual battery and corporal injury.
San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow questions the alleged victim in a June 2018 preliminary hearing for Herbert George Connor, 73, of Cambria, who faced felony charges of assault with intent to commit rape, sexual battery and corporal injury.

San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow on Tuesday did something he hasn't done in more than four years — he stepped across the courtroom bar and questioned witnesses as prosecutor in an ongoing sexual-assault case.

Dow, who was re-elected as District Attorney earlier this month, appeared in Superior Court Judge Barry LaBarbera's courtroom Tuesday for a preliminary hearing in the case of Herbert George Connor, a 72-year-old Cambria man accused of assaulting a 67-year-old Cambria woman last year with the intent to rape her.

Connor has pleaded not guilty to felony charges of assault with intent to commit rape and sexual battery, as well as a misdemeanor count of inflicting corporal injury. He faces up to seven years in state prison if convicted on all counts.

Preliminary hearings in criminal proceedings typically include testimony from a handful of witnesses for the prosecution followed by a judge's ruling on whether probable cause exists to proceed the case toward trial.

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San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow, right, confers with defense attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu before the start of the preliminary hearing for Herbert George Connor, 72, of Cambria, on June 26. Joe Johnston

On Tuesday, Dow called the alleged victim to the stand to testify. Though she waived confidentiality in court, it's The Tribune's policy not to name alleged victims of sex crimes.

The woman testified that she met Connor in 2012, as both Cambria residents would run into each other during walks. They soon started doing outdoor activities together, even though the woman knew Connor was married.

The friendship soon grew uncomfortable, however, when Connor began getting physical with her, she said, and the two had consensual sex on the man's boat in 2013.

"I think women in our culture, we feel obligated. That maybe I owed him," the woman said.

She broke off the relationship soon after and moved out of state for two years, before returning to Cambria. Again, the two began spending time and even traveling together. On April 25, 2017, the woman testified, Connor forced himself on her when he was helping her carry in groceries, pushing her into her bedroom and groping her breasts.

"I thought that he was going to rape me," she said.

As she was resisting and telling him to stop, the woman fell and hit her arm and chest in a door jamb. Connor stopped, asked if she needed medical attention and ultimately left, she testified. She later told a friend, who reported the incident to law enforcement, she said.

With the help of law enforcement, the woman carried out a "pretext" phone call in which alleged victims of a crime try to get a suspect to incriminate themselves with law enforcement listening. In the call, which Dow played for the court, Connor is heard apologizing for the woman's shoulder and arm injury.

Under cross examination by Ilan Funke-Bilu, Connor's defense attorney, the alleged victim said she couldn't recall how many times she had sex with him. She then said Funke-Bilu was incorrect when he stated that his client estimated it was about 15 times.

Funke-Bilu also pointed out several instances in which the woman is documented being less certain of Connor's actions when interviewed by law enforcement in 2017.

After hearing testimony from three witnesses including the alleged victim, LaBarbera upheld all three charges against Connor. Both Dow and Funke-Bilu declined to present arguments before the ruling.

Connor is due back in court July 11.

'An important case'

It is rare in San Luis Obispo County that a sitting District Attorney, an administrator whose department includes more than 30 deputy prosecutors, actually prosecutes a case in court. When they do, it's usually for a case that's especially heinous or otherwise high profile.

According to Tribune archives and several courthouse sources who've been around long enough, the last example of a DA personally prosecuting a defendant in any criminal case was more than 20 years ago.

In 1996, LaBarbera — then DA — won convictions in the capital murder case against Michael Whisenhunt, who tortured the 20-month-old daughter of a woman he lived with, scalding the toddler with grease and kicking her in the stomach.

Whisenhunt, 53, is one of three inmates from San Luis Obispo County currently on death row in San Quentin State Prison.

Assistant district attorneys are more often found in courtrooms. Former Assistant DA Tim Covello prosecuted the killers of Santa Maria teen Dystiny Myers in 2013, and ex-Assistant DA Lee Cunningham in 2015 won a 25-year-to-life conviction of a Paso Robles man who fatally shot his mother's boyfriend.

Dow said after the hearing that he took over the Connor case partly because he misses being in court and because "this is the work that I signed up to be a lawyer for."

"I love doing the job that we have to work with victims and see that justice is done," he said. "This gave me an opportunity to do it in a case that was an important case. This victim deserved somebody to go into court and put on the evidence, and I felt it was a good time to do it."

Dow previously was assigned to rape, sexual-assault and child-molestation cases before he was first elected to DA in 2014. He said he's been looking for a case to try in the courtroom that is manageable with his schedule, and that he took over as lead prosecutor in the Connor case roughly a week before the June 5 primary election.

"This is what I love to do, and being the administrator of an office and not having a chance to do that, you get antsy and you want to get in the game," he said. "I wanted to have the chance to go into court and do what the people have asked me to do, whether it’s through my staff or me personally."

The case was initially filed in May 2017 and has since had three deputies assigned to it, with another prosecutor appearing as recently as June 7, according to court records. Asked whether any of those deputies had differing opinions on the merits of the case, Dow declined to comment.

"The reason I don’t (want to comment) is because it involves internal management stuff, and it has no bearing on the standing of the case," Dow said.

He said Connor's case "is one that was brought to my attention that was one that might be a good option for me to handle," though he declined to elaborate on who recommended he take the case.

"The victim deserves to have someone present the case (in court), and I made a decision to handle it," Dow said.

Matt Fountain 781-7909, @mattfountain1
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