San Francisco Assistant District Attorney David Merin
San Francisco Assistant District Attorney David Merin

Q&A: Growing up off the grid, now working in the system

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Name: David M. Merin
Age: 46
City: San Francisco
Position: S.F. assistant district attorney, chief of criminal division, specialized teams

J.: You’ve been a prosecutor at the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office for almost 20 years, with 35 jury trials under your belt, including homicides and other high-profile cases. Do you remember your first case? Is there one that’s stuck with you over the years, or was especially challenging?

David M. Merin: They all stay with me. But the cases where I have not been successful are the ones that stay with me the most.].

Fajitagate was a challenging case. [In 2002, three off-duty San Francisco police officers were accused of accosting two men outside a pub, demanding their bag of steak fajitas, and beating the men when they refused.] I was brought on as an underling, and all the people on the prosecution team had the good sense to get reassigned or get pregnant (laughs). By the time of the trial, I was one of the only [deputy DAs] left on the case. Ultimately it went to trial as an assault case, although the original charge was about an alleged conspiracy in the police department to protect the son of the then-assistant chief of police [Alex Fagan Sr., whose son was one of the three officers].

My first case was a driving-under-the-influence trial, where the defense was that the defendant was not driving the car. I ended up winning the case, believe it or not, and the defendant was convicted. The defendant had some damning admissions, and he refused to take a chemical test. I felt terrible for the defendant. It was the first case I ever tried. I felt like he made a mistake, and he wasn’t a bad person or anything. But we’re taught often to judge the conduct, not the person. I found it difficult to separate myself from him at the time. He didn’t lie, and he didn’t testify and tell a story that stretched credulity.

You know, you sort of feel it from both sides. Once you stop feeling things from both sides, and stop seeing things from both sides, you lose some of your effectiveness as a lawyer.

Have you developed a philosophy for how to approach trials?

Yes. I really regard trial as a pursuit for truth, about getting to the truth. And anything that tends to distort, any effort to undermine or shade the truth, really offends me. I believe cases are won and lost based on the evidence, oftentimes despite the lawyers. On balance when jurors reach a verdict, I think they usually get it right. You know that’s partly because I work within the system, so I believe in it. But I also see its flaws, and I can’t be blind to them.

You were born in Bolinas and your family wasn’t very connected to Judaism when you were younger. When did that change?

Bolinas was sort of a hippie community, and my parents were living off the grid at the time. I actually was schooled at home for several years, until about the middle of third grade. At the time my parents had a tumultuous divorce, and my mom moved to the city. That was pretty much the first time I got in touch with my Judaism. After attending a smattering of schools in San Francisco, I was put into Hebrew Academy to get in touch with my Jewish roots, and then attended Brandeis until eighth grade.

You grew up in the Richmond District, became a bar mitzvah at Congregation Beth Sholom and went on to attend Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco and now Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. Does that Jewish grounding influence how you see the world?

It has always given me a sympathy or empathy for the little guy. I always marvel at 1 percent of the population being so represented in education, in the arts and in the sciences. At the heart of Jewish values for me is family, and the shared history that Jews have, and the cultural connectedness that I feel.

Does your Jewish sensibility come into play in your work?

I think you see the Socratic method throughout Jewish tradition. You see it throughout the Talmud and throughout the Torah. Question-based learning is always something that I have thought of as being both a Jewish characteristic and also important for the legal profession. I don’t usually have all the answers, but I always try and find the right question. Being able to ask the right question is almost as important, if not more important, than the answer.

max cherney
Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a former J. staff writer.