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Jeanne Sager | Democrat


Mitzner Wins Award

By Jeanne Sager
MONTICELLO — July 13, 2007 — Every criminal in Sullivan County may have a chance on appeal – but they’ll have to get through Bonnie Mitzner first.
One of two “executive” assistants in the Sullivan County District Attorney’s office, Mitzner has worked in almost every courtroom in the county in her 25 years practicing law.
She’s seen her office nearly double – as crime rates grew, so did the number of prosecutions and the prosecutors to handle them.
District Attorney Steve Lungen had four assistants when Mitzner signed on in 1982; today there are eight.
An increase in prosecutions has meant an increase in appeal attempts made by criminals seeking a get-out-of-jail-free card.
As Mitzner explained, “everyone convicted of a crime has a right to appeal.”
To keep a convicted criminal in jail, the district attorney’s office is responsible for answering that appeal with their own argument.
But appeals are time-consuming, paper-intensive and frustrating for prosecutors who have already gotten a conviction.
So when Lungen first suggested one member of his staff take over appeals, there were few takers.
Mitzner had three young children at home at the time (her sons Jacob, Evan and Forrest are now 19,16 and 13 respectively).
She saw appeals as a way to spend more time with her kids.
She volunteered.
Mitzner reduced her load of criminal prosecutions – many of which required her to be away from home at nighttime court appearances around the county – and became the one-woman appeals bureau of the Sullivan County District Attorney’s Office.
Although other prosecutors still handle some of the claims that come into the office, and Lungen remains a key figure in the process, Mitzner does the majority of the research and most often represents the county at the appellate court in Albany.
Her work has earned her this year’s New York State District Attorneys Association Prosecutor of the Year for Appeals Advocacy.
Lungen, who became the county’s head prosecutor just a few months before Mitzner came on board in August 1982, said she’s more than deserving of the accolades.
“She has the hard job of trying to justify what I do in the courtroom up in Albany,” he said with a laugh. “It’s not an easy job, but Bonnie does it, and she does it with flair, she does it with hard work, and she does it with excellence.”
He affectionately calls her the “mother of the office,” but there’s no mistaking the respect Lungen has for one of the staffers with the longest tenure in his office.
“Bonnie’s the kind of person, if you ask her to do it, she does it,” he explained. “She comes in early in the morning, and we very often don’t see her all day because she’s holed up in her cubicle working.”
In addition to the appeals, Mitzner still handles cases, often agreeing to handle the grisly child abuse cases that challenge the emotions of even an experienced ADA.
Mitzner has always known she wanted to work for the people.
She attended Orange County Community College fresh out of Goshen High School, earned her bachelor’s from SUNY Albany and a law degree from Syracuse University.
In the process, she completed internships at the district attorneys’ offices in both her native Orange County and Onondaga County upstate.
She began her job in Sullivan County fresh out of school the Monday after passing the bar exam, leaving her just enough time to pack up her Syracuse apartment and crash at her parents’ home in Orange County.
Mitzner’s worked appeals all the way through – first as an intern when she had yet to finish school and later at the Sullivan DA’s office when she’d passed the bar but not yet received official acceptance to the state bar.
“I truly believe that – unlike the perception out there that we’re only out for a conviction – we’re out for justice,” Mitzner explained. “We really try to make sure that the right thing gets done.”
That means not only ensuring the right person is behind bars, but that the victims’ voices are heard, she said.
When it comes to an appeal, Mitzner said she’s set on ensuring that justice prevails.
“You want to ensure that the people who have been convicted STAY convicted,” she explained.
“People take for granted, ‘Oh sure, you’ll get a conviction,’” she noted. “If you walk down the street, pick someone and tell them the facts of your case, 99 percent of the time, they’ll tell you, ‘Oh yeah, he’s guilty.’
“You put them in a jury box, and all of a sudden, everything changes,” Mitzner continued, shaking her head. “It’s not supposed to! You’re supposed to bring your common sense with you.
“Things happen at trial you never anticipate,” Mitzner explained. “To get that conviction – whether it be by trial or by plea – is unbelievably important in and of itself.
“Then to have this claim for some ridiculous error is frustrating.”
That’s where Mitzner steps in.
She examines the claims made in the motion for appeal and builds a case around what went right at trial.
At time she’s put in the position of defending the defense attorney when a client claims their lawyer was incompetent, other times she’s defending a document signed by the very criminal making the appeal where he pled guilty, agreed to a sentence and waived his right to appeal.
The cases upheld are her victories.
In People v. Krom, Mitzner helped convince the court to uphold Ronald Krom’s murder charges after he kidnapped and killed Judy Farber.
“We were able to argue successfully for the first time an emergency exception to the Miranda rule,” she explained.
Krom had asked for a lawyer and one was on his way when police convinced him to lead them to where he’d left Farber’s body, she explained.
At the time, Krom was the only one who knew where she was, and police were hoping to find her still alive.
They weren’t denying Krom his rights to a lawyer, the court decided, and the conviction stands. He’s currently in Auburn Correctional Facility serving 25 to life.
There are some cases that just never go away, Mitzner said.
Almost two decades ago, a man kidnapped his girlfriend, tied her to a tree and sodomized her.
Now he’s asking for DNA tests on the gag used in her mouth.
Mitzner shakes her head.
“All of our felony cases are serious, or they wouldn’t be felonies,” she said with a sigh. “Some just stay with you because of the gruesome nature of the crime.”
And some because the convicted want out of prison any way possible.
The county handles as many as 40 appeals to state court per year.
She also handles writs to federal court, appeals made by convicts who have exhausted all of their resources within the state system.
That number is lower – usually less than 10 a year – but still daunting.
On top of those cases are the motions to vacate a judgment made to the county court.
“It keeps you busy,” Mitzner admitted with a grin.
But Mitzner still finds time to act as co-president of Temple Sholoms in Monticello and serve on the board of Hadassah.
She lives in Liberty with her children and husband Jeffrey Kirsch, a Liberty lawyer.
Ironically, Kirsch was the assistant district attorney whose departure in 1982 paved the way for Mitzner to come to Sullivan County.
The two met later when Kirsch visited to attend a colleague’s wedding, and Mitzner is grateful to have found someone who knows what she goes through.
“It helps that he understands what this job entails,” she explained. “This is not a 9 to 5 job at all!”
That’s what makes Mitzner all the more deserving of notice, Lungen said.
“It’s amazing how she was able to do it all – and without help,” he said. “Bonnie isn’t one to have a nanny.
“She never misses one of her kids’ events, whether it’s soccer or basketball, in Sullivan County, out of Sullivan County,” he continued.
She handles the appeals with the same kind of take-charge attitude.
But the award, which will be officially conferred later this month at a conference at the Mohonk Mountain House, forced her to slow down and reflect on 25 years in the DA’s office.
“It’s a pretty special thing to be able to be recognized by your fellow prosecutors,” she said. “I’m humbled quite frankly. Every office of the 62 counties in New York has appeals.”
Some get help, but Sullivan County handles everything that comes its way in-house.
“We just take the position that we know our cases better than anyone,” Mitzner explained.

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