Kern County Assistant District Attorney Scott Spielman made one of his final rounds in Ridgecrest back in April when he spoke to the Democratic Club of the High Desert.
Spielman, 53, has his sights set on the top prosecutor’s chair as current DA Lisa Green decided not to run for re-election. He’s Green’s choice to replace him and her second-in-command.
But he faces strong competition in the election from fellow prosecutor Cynthia Zimmer, another seasoned veteran of the Kern County DA’s office.
Spielman provided some background at the Democratic Club lunch in April.
He’s a U.S. Army veteran, where he served three years as a military police officer. He spent another year in the Army, separated from the service as a sergeant, and went back to college.
“When a professor said this was what it took to get an A, I took it as an order,” Spielman said.
He earned a criminology degree from Fresno State and his law degree from the McGeorge School of Law. He was convinced by his cousin, a Fresno police officer, to attend law school.
He passed the bar exam the first time but worked construction in his father’s company.
“I was swinging a hammer while interviewing up and down the state for prosecutors’ offices,” Spielman said. “I had interviewed in Kern County, and when they offered me the job, I was actually up on a scaffold rebuilding a fireplace after the Northridge Earthquake. They asked me when I wanted to start, I looked around and said, ‘Tomorrow.’ “
Spielman has been with the DA’s office for 24 years and secured more than 100 felony trials — a large swath of those being violent felonies and sexual offenses. “I’ve done 20 murder trials and 20 sexual assault cases.”
He noted his volunteer experience working for a sexual assault and domestic abuse victims hotline while in law school provided him a unique insight into those types of crimes.
“That’s why as a prosecutor I wanted to handle the serious cases,” Spielman said. On the sexual assault front, he said he handled rape cases, child molestation trials and others were horrible things occurred, “especially where with children the worst things happened [to them].”
“The Kern County District Attorney’s Office responds to things where people had something bad happen to them,” Spielman said. “It’s like going to the emergency room, where something bad has happened and you want the best possible person to handle that. That’s how I approach my job and why I took the most emotional cases ... I’ve had a passion for it my entire career.”
He noted his first murder trial was 20 years ago and involved a family that he and his wife still keep in contact with.
A little over seven years ago, he was named to his current post. He has had supervisor experience with the DA’s special prosecutions unit, and supervised newer attorneys, where he wanted to “mold them as they came in.”
When Green elevated him to her second-in-command, he began handling the budget and personnel issues. Those are aspects of the DA’s job that Green has previously told the media she and her predecessor Ed Jagels lacked coming into the role.
Twice, Spielman has overseen the DA’s crime lab on an interim basis. He still oversees it as Assistant DA, and brought to it new technology — technology that helped identify DNA confirmed to belong to Benjamin Ashley, the murder suspect who led law enforcement agencies on a huge manhunt in 2015.
Ashley was eventually located, shot, and killed in Inyokern in August 2015.
“It was our technology that when they found a container they believed the perpetrator had used, the swabbed the mouth of it, and when tested with the DNA technology, found the profile that identified Benjamin Ashley,” Spielman said.
He’s also handled budget issues relating to the Kern County retirement costs, which take up a huge chunk of his department’s budget — a common theme across all county departments and offices. He said he sees a light at the end of the tunnel thanks to changes made 10 years ago. Speilman said he sees it leveling off in four years as more people are paying into the retirement fund.
But it places a constraint on the DA’s budget regardless. “Every year, I had to deal with a budget that is reduced,” Spielman said. The price of oil dropping over the last four years hasn’t helped either — hurting Kern County’s revenue stream and sending its budget into a nosedive.
“I know I can make it through the next three years, because I’ve made it through the budget the last seven years.”
He brought the budget discussion back around to the crime lab. He noted he’s had to find ways to shift funds in order to bring in the new DNA technology. “I knew how to make those adjustments, save the money we needed to bring in that new technology we needed.”
Spielman added the DA’s office will be launching a new ballistics testing approach in its crime lab, something he said will help solve violent gun-related crimes.
He also oversees policies, procedures, and discipline for more than 250 employees in the office. The DA’s office also oversees officer review boards for Kern County Sheriff’s Office and the Bakersfield Police Department — Kern’s two largest law enforcement agencies.
“With the resources we had, I developed a procedure wherein anyone is injured or killed in an officer-involved shooting, we review the cases,” Spielman said, adding Kern was one of the last counties to do that.
He said while KCSO and BPD leadership was receptive to the review process, the police union boards weren’t. “But it was something that needed to be done.”
Any time a death occurs from use of force or officer-involved shooting, a panel takes a look at all the facts before making a ruling. “When we get all the information we need to make a decision, we talk about it and ultimately it’s the District Attorney’s decision.”
Spielman also noted under his leadership, the DA’s office also created veterans-oriented services to help those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and committed crimes and ensure they don’t face future problems or run-ins with the criminal justice system.
He did the same with mental illness, putting them into a structured environment and “get them on their own feet” and responsible enough to get out of the system.
“Incarcerating people costs a lot of money and if we’re smart enough to do these other things that can save my people money in having to process these cases over and over again,” Spielman said.
He noted that the county was not able to absorb the onslaught of released state inmates after the state prison realignment process took effect. Kern County received more than 2,000 over the period of releases of felons for nonviolent, low-level felonies. Kern County’s jail system was already impacted.
Spielman said that property crimes shot up. And then the state reduced certain felonies to misdemeanors, including most drug possession crimes. He added something should be done to address the issue and will need to involve county and local law enforcement so that people who commit those crimes should be held accountable for their actions.
Another need Spielman sees for the DA’s office is a cybersecurity unit, as the number of computer-related crimes like fraud and identify theft increase. He said it takes up to a year for the county to receive results from the federal government.
He noted he’s been there for the big decisions alongside Green, “and the bigger the decision, the more likely you’ll have someone on the other side who is unhappy with it.”
He said the DA’s office goes through the facts and evidence very carefully.
“You want to make the right decision for the right reasons, knowing people are going to be critical of it,” Spielman said. “And that’s OK because that is how my career has been. I’ve had a defense attorney on the other side watch what I do, I’ve had a judge, a jury, and for convictions, I have an appellate court. I am very comfortable in not explaining what I’m doing.”
He said he knows the importance of the DA’s office and will “follow my conscience and the law” and not be swept away by politics.
“Until I see an individual case, I have no business making promises because it’s unethical,” Spielman said. “I am going to use my conscience, my experience, my knowledge of the law to make a decision. I’m not going to cater to any special interests or be driven by any political machine. I am independent, and that’s how I’ve always been.”