Remembering Norm Vroman
by Mark Scaramella, May 31, 2017
It’s a given among local law enforcement that at the time of his death, Mendo DA Norm Vroman, the accidental anarchist, was being investigated by federal authorities for marijuana and gun-related crimes. The allegations certainly fit Vroman’s libertarian prosecution policies. But at least one former Vroman lawyer we know insists that the rumors were simply politically motivated gossip started by federal officials who didn’t like Vroman’s loose pot and gun policies.
Whatever investigations were underway, they ended when Vroman died in September of 2006 after suffering a heart attack in his driveway. He was also right in the middle of a heated re-election campaign, having become the most talked about DA in the state, if not the country. Here at the Boonville weekly, we were always big Vroman supporters, and were flattered when Vroman said our support won him his first election as DA. (We are assumed to influence a strong 20 or so percent of the Mendo vote, an influence on the wane with the rise of multi-cyber communication vessels.
After a long and varied legal career, which began in Southern California and spanned more than 40 years, Vroman, age 69 when he died, was elected Mendocino County’s DA in 1998 in a come-from-behind runoff win over the incumbent DA Susan Massini. Vroman mounted a strong get out the vote effort combined with a concerted campaign focusing on Massini’s many failings, including her mishandling of the Bear Lincoln case, her mysterious failure to charge and prosecute the criminals responsible for the Fort Bragg fires in the late 80s. Then there was her high profile, anti-union prosecution against Carpenters’ Union reps at a school site where they were carrying out their legal union work, plus bitter, politically-motivated, retaliatory firings of staff attorneys, including present DA Eyster who Massini had removed from the office at gunpoint on a Friday afternoon. Vroman was re-elected relatively easily against Massini and Al Kubanis in the 2002 primary without a runoff.
Most observers credited Vroman’s come-from-behind win in 1998 to votes from the Coast which were heavily in his favor, particularly in Fort Bragg, where anger at Massini lingered for her failure to prosecute the brazen arsonists responsible for the infamous Fort Bragg fires of '87.
But by 2006 a number of Coast residents who voted for Vroman in 1998 and 2002 had been estranged by Vroman’s blanket disqualifications of Ten Mile Court judge Jonathan Lehan and Vroman came in surprisingly low in the 2006 DA primary. As far as I know Vroman never fully explained why he filed the blanket recusals of Lehan, although he did say that Lehan didn’t adequately control his courtroom and didn’t know the law, an opinion held by many others who’d come into contract with Lehan in court.
After a few weeks, instead of replacing Lehan in Fort Bragg, then-Presiding Judge Eric Labowitz reacted by putting a retired judge in Lehan’s courtroom to take the cases after Lehan was recused while Lehan continued to handle civil and carryover cases.
Lehan was appointed Ten Mile judge when his predecessor, Judge Heeb, flamed out in a scandal involving the judge's infatuation with a chronic offender whose affections the judge rewarded by lenient legal treatment. Lehan himself, always protected by his fellow judges, was the object of formal complaints for continually exposing himself to female court staffers. But his pals on the Ukiah bench, led by the late Judge Ron Brown, transferred Lehan to low profile duty in Ukiah until the scandal subsided. Our superior court, in our opinion, has always protected its friends and allies.
Over time, Vroman's blanket challenge tactic backfired politically because more and more coast people and cops were inconvenienced by having to take their cases to inland courts to avoid Judge Flasher, and backfired legally because the DA’s one freebie peremptory challenge was used up on Lehan and thus not available for the next judge who may have been assigned to the case.
As a result, Vroman came in second behind Fort Bragg attorney Meredith Lintott thus leading to a runoff which never happened after Vroman’s untimely death. Lintott, it might be recalled, was initially hired into the DA’s office by former DA Susan Massini and was one of the few Massini-holdovers before she quit to go into estate planning then declaring her candidacy for DA.
The one word that best describes Norm Vroman as DA is “independent” — independent of judges, of Supervisors, of cops, of the CHP, of parole officers, the IRS, etc. Vroman’s critics saw his independence as stubbornness and uncooperativeness. But it was an independence born of self-confidence from his years of experience and reverence for the US Constitution and his occasional unshared reading of the document, one of which cost him two years in the federal penitentiary for failing to file tax returns. Vroman’s self-confidence was also a large reason that he was as accessible as he was. Although he’d listen to people who wanted to lobby him one way or another, he had strong opinions on cases and people and it was hard to get him to change a decision he’d made once it was announced.
The DA’s office was generally well-run under Vroman who took a hands-off approach to individual cases once they were charged. Vroman made most of the initial charging decisions every morning as the cases arrived at the DA’s office, after which they were turned over to individual prosecuting attorneys. Vroman was proud that he’d developed and instituted an office procedure manual and implemented a large scale upgrade of the DA’s office technology (computers, cameras, recorders, etc.) as well as getting many of his deputy District Attorneys to take weapons training on the shooting range at the Ukiah Gun Club. (Vroman was a self-described “gun nut.”)
Vroman was Mendocino County oriented, to the point that he had begun to annoy many of his former pot-growing supporters. Vroman didn’t want to make Mendo into a pot-exporting plantation and didn’t think Mendo “caregivers” should be growing pot for large outside "patient" markets like San Francisco. He also prosecuted some high profile “medical” pot cases which the single-issue pot people found to be too aggressive.
The Ralph Freedman Fiasco was a good example of Vroman’s independence. While some of the credit for staying on that case goes to his former deputy Myron Sawicki, Vroman was the one who decided to step in and take action when it was obvious that the Supervisors were not going to do the right thing and get rid of their hot-headed Child Support Services Director. In closed session, Vroman told the Supes if they didn’t do something about Freedman, he would. They didn’t, he did — and a few months later a young female employee said Freedman had groped her and the Supes finally had to dump him after wasting tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on a Sonoma County defense attorney. Vroman eventually lost Freedman’s criminal harassment jury trial, but that wasn’t the point. He forced the Supes’ hand and made it clear they’d better not let that kind of thing go on in the workplace.
Vroman was refreshingly direct and blunt personally but unfailingly polite. For example when asked why bail amounts seemed low he’d simply reply that bail was to ensure that a person would appear in court, not a form of financial punishment. He could also be an hilarious witness. Cross-examined by a hostile attorney he replied literally to all her questions.
"How did you communicate with Mr. Freedman, Mr. Vroman?" asked Freedman’s attorney Jamie Thistlethwaite.
"In English," Vroman replied.
Vroman got a bad rap early in his tenure when some members of the local therapy community didn’t like the way he handled domestic abuse cases, which just happened to have the effect of lowering their caseloads and pay days because Vroman didn’t think “anger management” classes did any good. In fact, Vroman’s domestic abuse prosecution record was better than Massini’s and, after the flurry of objections — fanned, of course by the Santa Rosa Press Democrat which always endorsed his opponent and took every opportunity to find fault with Vroman — passed, there were no more complaints of that nature.
While Norm Vroman certainly acquired his share of critics over the years, especially in his second term, as any DA will, he had the respect of most of his staff and was never a guy to be taken lightly, personally or legally — as the Supervisors, the Auditor (he staunchly defended his budget) and some local judges discovered. And while there were a number of individual issues and cases that people could certainly disagree with Vroman on, Mendocino County had a sensible, reasonable person sitting in the DA's office. That hasn't always been the case.