As 2017 drew to a close, so did the distinguished career of David J. Danielsen, a longtime San Diego Superior Court judge widely admired for his handling of criminal cases and his leadership in some of the court’s most challenging times.
Danielsen, 65, ended his 27 years on the bench quietly Friday. During his time as a judge, he presided over high profile cases — including that of John Albert Gardner III, who sexually assaulted and killed two North County teenagers — and led the court through a budget crisis and legislative upheavals that tested his mettle.
And through it all, friends and colleagues say, Danielsen stuck to his core mission: justice for criminal defendants and their victims.
“What distinguished him was his ability to step back and look at the entire criminal justice system and ask, ‘How do we make this system better? How do we reduce recidivism? How do we put people’s lives back on track without having them re-victimize the community through criminal conduct?’ ” District Attorney Summer Stephan said in a phone interview Friday.
“When you look at each case as having a face and a name and a person, that is what allows us to do a good job,” she continued. “And that’s something Judge Danielsen has never lost sight of.”
Danielsen was born in California and grew up in Los Angeles. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in 1973, then his law degree from the University of San Diego in 1977. He worked as a civil lawyer until 1990, when he took a judicial position in San Diego Municipal Court. In 1995, he began serving as a judge in San Diego Superior Court, where he stayed until his retirement last week.
Over the years, Danielsen served the Superior Court in various judicial positions, including two terms as criminal supervising judge and a stint as assistant presiding judge. In 2014 and 2015, he was presiding judge, at the helm of the court’s 128 judicial officers and 1,217 employees.
Danielsen said in an interview that he decided it was time to scale back his service to the court, and that he planned to spend more time with his family. He will return to the bench on occasion as an assigned judge to preside over individual cases as needed.
He also plans to explore other interests, including possibly teaching at a law school.
One of the more memorable high-profile cases Danielsen handled during his tenure was the double-murder case against John Albert Gardner III, who was charged in April 2010 with killing Chelsea King, 17, of Poway and Amber Dubois, 14, of Escondido. The case wrested the public’s attention locally and nationally.
Gardner’s case never went to trial. In exchange for avoiding the death penalty, Gardner pleaded guilty in May 2010 to charges of rape and murder, as well as a charge of assault with intent to commit rape for an attack on Candice Moncayo, a young woman who was able to fight him off and escape. He also agreed as part of the plea deal to show authorities where he buried Dubois, who had been missing since February 2009.
At an emotional hearing, during which Gardner let slip a brief flash of anger when Moncayo referenced striking him in the nose, Danielsen sentenced Gardner to two consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole, and another life term for the attack on Moncayo.
Danielsen said he approved the plea agreement, but was not involved in reaching it. In typical matter-of-fact fashion, the judge said sentencing Gardner to live the rest of his life in prison was not among the most difficult decisions of his career.
“That was one of those cases, where the result, especially in allowing finality for the families, allowing the Dubois family to actually know what happened to their daughter — it was just compelling good sense to resolve it that way,” Danielsen said last week.
He faced more challenging choices when it came to scaling back services in response to a massive budget crisis after a decade of state funding cuts that slashed $30 million from the court’s annual budget — taking it from about $200 million in 2008 to about $171 million in 2017, despite increasing expenses.
To make ends meet, the court scaled back and consolidated services, cut staff, closed courtrooms and temporarily reduced the hours of operation in its business offices.
The cuts pained Danielsen, who held top judicial positions from 2012 through 2016, because meeting the court’s constitutional duties, such as speedy trials for criminal defendants, meant cutting discretionary — but important — services. For example, no longer providing court reporters in family courts means some parties will not have transcripts to appeal what can be life-changing rulings.
“This term is so repulsive to me, but we’ve had to ration justice,” Danielsen said.
At the same time, the court has had to comply with legislative changes that stressed its resources, including Proposition 47, which downgraded certain felony offenses to misdemeanors, including simple drug possession and some property crimes.
San Diego Superior Court Presiding Judge Jeffrey Barton said Danielsen developed a model that enabled the court to process tens of thousands of petitions from people who wanted their felony convictions reduced under Proposition 47, The day after the law was passed by voters in 2014, Danielsen was ready with a plan to handle the influx of requests from people wanting their convictions reduced.
“The plan he rolled out was seamless,” Barton said.
Within two years, the court had granted more than 20,500 petitions for reductions.
Danielsen’s tireless work, dogged persistence and can-do attitude had a lot to do with the court’s success in difficult circumstances, colleagues said.
Stephen Cline, a criminal defense lawyer who has known Danielsen for decades, said the judge had little patience for attorneys who cut corners in upholding their duties to clients, and he came down hard on those who ventured into his courtroom unprepared.
“You didn’t show up late, you didn’t show up with excuses, you didn’t show up unprepared,” Cline said. “And there was a price to pay for any of those mistakes. He did not favor anyone in that regard. Everyone was equally punished if they lacked in their duties.”
And, ever fair, Danielsen held himself to the same high standards, Cline said. Where some judges might not be willing to risk giving a defendant a chance to change in lieu of prison, Danielsen would sometimes tell defendants that they were in a hole they had created for themselves, but they had not fallen so far that they could never get out.
He would then say, “I’m going to offer you a rope. You’re either going to pull yourself up or wrap it around your neck and finish the fall,” Cline recalled.
Some of the defendants who accepted opportunities to change their lives with, for example, drug treatment programs in lieu of prison, have kept in touch with Danielsen over the years, the judge said Friday.
One defendant, a woman Danielsen declined to name, was struggling with a serious drug problem and was facing significant prison time. He allowed the woman to avoid prison on the condition that she follow his orders for recovery programs, job training and monitoring.
The road to recovery wasn’t easy and there were setbacks that landed her in custody, but the defendant kept trying until she got healthy and found a job, Danielsen said. Later, her son got into trouble and she told Danielsen she was tempted to use, he said. But she didn’t.
The judge paused when telling the story, tears beginning to fill his eyes. Then he said, his voice cracking slightly: “She said she didn’t want to disappoint me.” And she hasn’t, he said.
There have been times when defendants have told Danielsen that finding themselves in his courtroom “saved” them. But the judge says that’s not the case.
The truth, he said, is that court offered them an opportunity to earn a better life.
They saved themselves, he said.
Staff writer Dana Littlefield contributed to this report.