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Sacramento prosecutor sought justice for dead kids and downtrodden. She’s retiring after 39 years

‘Children need a voice’ Retiring Sacramento prosecutor reflects on storied career

Robin Shakely has spent 39 years with the Sacramento County DAs office. She prosecuted emotionally taxing cases involving abuse, molestation and murder of children. She reflects on her career on Aug, 23, 2018.
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Robin Shakely has spent 39 years with the Sacramento County DAs office. She prosecuted emotionally taxing cases involving abuse, molestation and murder of children. She reflects on her career on Aug, 23, 2018.

In the middle of a passionate closing argument in the last murder trial of her long and distinguished career, prosecutor Robin Shakely suddenly fell silent.

Fifteen seconds passed. Thirty. Forty.

Shakely stood, mute in front of jurors, and looked into each of their eyes. They fidgeted. Judge Donald Currier and courtroom observers seemed perplexed.

“That was 48 seconds, ladies and gentlemen,” Shakely finally said. Imagine fighting to breathe for four or five times that long, she said, as someone choked the life out of you.

That is what happened to Sharen Brandow, a homeless woman whose alleged killer the prosecutor was trying to put away for the rest of his life. “That,” said Shakely, “is premeditated murder.”

It took jurors just a few hours of deliberations to decide that they agreed. They convicted Benjamin Brownlee of strangling and robbing Brandow at her campsite beneath a Sacramento freeway overpass, and he was condemned to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Shakely won the case even though no fingerprints or genetic profiles linked Brownlee to Brandow.

Though few knew it at the time, the trial last summer would be Shakely’s last in Sacramento Superior Court. She was planning to retire. But on the cusp of making that announcement, just weeks after the murder trial, her life was upended by a cancer diagnosis.

She postponed her departure, underwent mastectomy surgery and began taking radiation treatments. Now healthy and with a good prognosis, she will leave her post Friday, just a few days past her 39th anniversary in the county District Attorney’s office.

Shakely, 63, leaves a powerful legacy.

Since stepping into the DA’s office for the first time, fresh out of law school in 1979, Shakely has worked in almost every unit of the agency. But she is most renowned for prosecuting people who abuse and murder children. Earlier in her career, she ran the DA’s newly formed child homicide unit, and for a time was one of only a few prosecutors in the state handling child murders exclusively. Shakely saw herself as a voice of the defenseless, a role she still embraces.

Throughout her career, Shakely has served on projects and committees designed to improve systems for protecting vulnerable children in Sacramento County and beyond. As she leaves the DA’s office, she conceded that the efforts have largely failed.

“Nothing has changed with respect to protecting children,” Shakely said in an interview in the DA’s downtown office, where she will leave as assistant chief deputy. “The system still works harder to protect the family bond than the child, and children continue to die.”

The names and stories of the young victims whose stories Shakely told in the courtroom are seared into her brain. She cannot forget K.C. Balbuena, beaten to death at age 3. Or Christopher David Thomas, also 3, who endured weeks of physical and emotional abuse before his murder. Or Loran MacDonald, who suffered fatal fractures to his skull when he was 17 months old. Years later, she still can describe, in vivid detail, the horrific injuries each of them suffered at the hands of people who were supposed to care for them.

The cases took a toll on Shakely. She was the mother of an infant when she prosecuted her first child murder. Many of the dead children whose cases she embraced were the same ages as her own kids.

In 1999, after five years of focusing solely on child homicides, Shakely plunged into clinical depression. “I crashed and burned,” she recalled. “I couldn’t sleep. I had no interest in eating. My mind was scrambled.” She left work for three weeks, talked to mental health professionals and took medications. Since then, she has prosecuted a wider variety of cases, and for awhile took a break from the courtroom to serve in an administrative role.

In 2008, while she was a member of the homicide division, Shakely suffered a devastating personal loss. Her daughter Kelsey, a Sacramento City College student, died when she was struck by a car as she stood on the Foresthill Bridge near Auburn while skygazing with friends. A year later, Shakely wrote in an essay she shared with friends and family that “I will never have that ‘all is right with my world’ feeling again.

“Joy will return in other ways,” she said, “but I will never again feel whole.”

Among those to whom she turned for support after losing her daughter was Pat Dazis, the grandmother of Christopher Cejas, whose murder case Shakely prosecuted a couple of years earlier. The boy died at age 12, four months after moving to Sacramento from North Carolina to live with his father and stepmother, who were convicted of starving and beating him to death.

“For awhile after Kelsey died, I think everything was just knocked out of Robin,” Dazis said in an interview. Dazis helped her walk through her grief.

“I told her that it would take time, but she would come along,” she recalled. “We just held onto each other, in a way.”

Shakely has, indeed, “come along,” she said. She finds joy in cooking, traveling, writing and reading. Her unwavering religious faith and tight-knit family give her strength. She and her husband Tom, a retired high school English teacher, have three surviving adult children, Caitlin, Joe and Jessica.

“I’d always thought that this kind of thing wouldn’t happen to me because I was doing very hard work on behalf of children, “ Shakely reflected. “Then it did. But I never lost my faith, and I never asked why. No answer will satisfy me. I know that God had his reasons and they were too big for me to understand.”

Shakely, who attends a Christian church in Carmichael, frequently references the Bible and quotes Scripture. A decorative cross hangs in her office, and she often wears a crucifix around her neck in court, a practice that some defense attorneys have challenged as an attempt to manipulate juries. Critics have said her religious beliefs sometimes influence her approach to cases and cause her to lose perspective.

Shakely responds that she always has the best interests of her clients in mind.

The prosecutor’s colleagues, as well as other court observers, say Shakely is driven by an impassioned sense of justice and an extraordinary work ethic.

“As passionate as Robin is about her profession, she is even more dedicated to her family which is exceeded only by her devotion to her faith,” said assistant chief deputy DA Rob Gold. “She’s always had her priorities in order.”

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Savage, a longtime friend of Shakely’s, called her “the finest prosecutor to ever work” in the DA’s office.

“Robin gave every bit of her skill and energy, in the cause of justice, every day,” Savage said. “In my view, her career achievements as a Deputy DA are unrivaled.”

But Shakely’s deep empathy for crime victims, and her unwillingness to settle cases in favor of jury trials that might result in harsher sentences, have at times sparked controversy.

Among the cases that some said never should have gone to trial was that of Jamie Lynne Stone, a respected North Highlands day care operator charged with killing little Loran MacDonald. Fellow prosecutors in Shakely’s own office said they believed the case was unwinnable because of a lack of physical evidence and Stone’s stellar public presence and reputation as a loving mother.

But Shakely persevered. Stone became a martyr in the public’s eyes, Shakely said. The trial ended in a hung jury.

In the courtroom, Shakely is renowned for her thoroughness and her meticulousness in presenting evidence.

Petite and stylish, with a soft, slightly raspy voice, Shakely for decades went toe to toe in murder trials with nationally known medical experts and some of the best defense lawyers in the state and never flinched, said Savage and others. She was the unapologetic voice of her victims, calling them “God’s children” behind the scenes.

Some have called her a relentless crusader, stubborn to a fault at times when fighting for the rights of crime victims.

“She has overwhelming empathy for the victims, to the point that she’s not willing to settle for a lesser punishment than what she personally believes is appropriate,” said criminal defense attorney Alan Whisenand. “I disagree with it, but it’s not coming from a bad place. She’s an incredibly principled person, and she acts on her principles.”

Shakely is unrattled by criticism of her style or approach. “I actually have settled cases for far less than the maximum,” she said with a smile. “But I do take a strong line in cases in which public safety demands it. I can live with that.”

Judge Savage said his friend’s ethical principals “are as pure as her advocacy is zealous.”

“She would rather cut off her right arm than be involved in a conviction of an innocent person or violate a standard of prosecutorial ethics,” he said. “Anyone who thinks otherwise doesn’t know Robin.”

Born and raised in Texas, Shakely had an “idyllic” upbringing with parents who were childhood sweethearts, she said.

“I always knew that I wanted to be a lawyer,” Shakely said, in part because that was the profession of a favorite uncle. She studied psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara and got her law degree from Santa Clara University, where she met her future husband.

She considered becoming a defense attorney, but shelved that idea after “I realized that I was going to be representing a lot of guilty people and trying to get them off,” she said. “I figured that if I was going to truly represent the downtrodden, I needed to work in the DA’s office.” Nearly 40 years later, she still believes that.

Shakely’s reputation for detailed preparation is legendary. She is known to stay up into the wee hours researching a medical condition or fine-tuning a closing argument.

“She gives the same Herculean effort to every case she touches, whether it’s a front-page homicide or a routine misdemeanor, whether anyone is watching or whether anyone cares,” Savage said.

Superior Court Judge Helena Gweon noted that Shakely cuts a respectful presence in the courtroom, even toward her rivals. She recalled Shakely’s “compassion and humanity” toward one defendant accused of beating to death a young boy. “She knew more intimately than anyone in the courtroom the horrific details of the crime,” Gweon said.

Shakely hammered the defendant on the stand. But during a break, the judge said, “she quietly asked him if he needed water, poured it for him and walked it up to him. I had never seen a DA treat a defendant like this.”

“By the time she gave her closing argument,” Gweon said, “every word of her mouth was as good as gold because the jury had the opportunity to see her consistently conduct herself with the utmost integrity.”

Dazis, whose grandson’s killers were sent to prison in 2006, said Shakely gained her confidence from her first contacts with the prosecutor, first in computer messages and then in person.

“She was very gentle with us,” said Dazis, who came to Sacramento from North Carolina to testify in the case. “She kind of put herself into our family. I liked that. But the minute I met her I could see that there was no question in her mind, absolutely none, that she was going to win” a conviction of Andrew Anthony Cejas and Kathryn Elizabeth Potter, Dazis said.

Shakely did just that. She and Dazis remain friends, sending each other encouraging notes, cards and flowers on birthdays and anniversaries marking the deaths of their loved ones.

Ten years after Kelsey died, Shakely still posts photos, videos and thoughts about her daughter on a memorial Facebook page. In July, on what would have been her daughter’s 31st birthday, she posted a short video of the night sky and suggested Kelsey was shining down on the world in the form of a bright star that sparkled next to the moon. Family photographs in her office are divided into spaces that represent “before Kelsey” and “after Kelsey.” The family has scattered Kelsey’s ashes in many of her favorite places around the world.

Last week, Shakely began packing up her office, where the tools of her trade include a replica of a youngster’s skull with cracks scissoring its surface. Decorating a shelf is a statue of Lady Justice, given to Shakely by her colleagues, engraved with an inscription describing the prosecutor as “A Passionate Warrior Who Gave Her Heart and Soul For the Protection of Children.” A chart illustrating the workings of the human brain has long hung on the wall. A file filled with papers related to her most recent murder case, The People of the State of California vs. Benjamin Brownlee, rests on the floor.

“It’s weird,” she said of her retirement. “It’s definitely bittersweet, because I’ve always loved this work. But I just know it’s the right time. I could do one more trial. But no. I want to go out at the top of my game.”

She and her husband soon will move to Southern California, close to her parents, Tom and Lu Burke, and other relatives. Shakely said. A family reunion is scheduled. “I’ll take my parents to medical appointments, that sort of thing,” she said. “I’d like to do some writing.” She might even keep a toe in the legal world, she said, though she is unsure in what role.

As she looks back on her career, Shakely said, she likes to think she helped bring justice, or at least some measure of peace, to the dead and damaged people whose cases she has taken up over the course of nearly four decades.

“I have been blessed beyond measure with a wonderful family, friends, freedom and faith to see me through,” she said. “I tried to always convey to people who would ask that I had been greatly blessed and I felt like God gave me the strength to do a job that others might not be able to do.”

Some cases still haunt her. Shakely was stunned in 2014 when, following five days of deliberations, a jury failed to reach a verdict on who was responsible for killing little Josiah Pineda. The infant died of head injuries that Shakely believed she proved were inflicted by his uncle, Wendell James Taghap.

But some jury members said later that they believed the baby’s mother, Daphne, might have killed the boy. Because of that reasonable doubt, Taghap walked free. The DA’s office decided against taking the matter to trial a second time.

Shakely was deeply disturbed by the outcome of the case. But her spirits were lifted when she received a note from the child’s mother after the trial ended. Daphne Pineda thanked the prosecutor for “fighting for my baby, because in doing so you fought for me as well.

“It breaks my heart that I didn’t get the justice that my baby deserved,” Pineda wrote. “But I know in my heart that God’s ways and plans are higher than mine and I will find comfort in that. I want to also thank you for your prayers. I ask that you please continue to pray for me.”

Shakely does, she said, “whenever she comes to mind.”