Claudine Ruiz is making the San Diego community safer, one bad guy at a time
The line of people waiting to go though security before entering the San Diego Central Courthouse stretches for half a block. Women with worried faces juggle squirming toddlers alongside badged jurors anxiously checking their watches. Lawyers and employees enter through an adjacent separate door; their crisp suits and neatly organized files in sharp contrast to the controlled chaos alongside them.
Inside is a culture all its own. Attorneys confer with clients on wooden benches, oblivious to uniformed officers escorting prisoners in orange jumpsuits past them. The tension is as palpable as the clanking of shackles.
This is the world that Deputy District Attorney Claudine Ruiz ’00 (JD) is immersed in. A prosecutor for the County of San Diego’s Family Protection Division, Ruiz handles cases that are — as the intro to a popular TV show says — “especially heinous.” Child abuse. Felony domestic violence. Elder abuse.
“Those are our special victims,” she explains. “Our office feels that those particular victims — children, the elderly and people in domestic violence situations — need additional attention and resources.”
The first-degree murder conviction of serial spousal abuser Larry W. Brown in 2010 epitomizes what her work is all about. “My office found six prior girlfriends and ex-wives who had horrible domestic violence that spanned 20 years with Brown,” Ruiz recalls. But it’s not always easy to convince people to testify: “No victim wants to go to court and tell their story. They don’t want to see the defendant; they don’t want to relive what happened. But when it’s all over, victims feel really empowered, because they’ve been able to stand up to their abuser.”
When she handles high-profile cases like that of Brown, and more recently, David Ditto, who was convicted of the first-degree murder of his wife in October 2011, there’s little time for anything else. “There’s nothing fun about a big trial until you’re done,” she says with a hint of a sigh, before brightening. “When you look back on the whole experience, it’s exhilarating. But when you’re in it, it’s all-consuming.”
Ruiz grew up in Maryland, near Washington, D.C. Her mother’s family hails from Georgetown, going back four generations. Her Colombia-born father came to the U.S. as a student; neither parent earned a college degree.
But Ruiz was driven. After earning a BA in international relations from American University, she ultimately hoped to become a diplomat, however, fate intervened: While working as a lobbyist, she came to San Diego for the Republican National Convention as part of Elizabeth Dole’s gender gap team. The city captured her heart.
“That was a tremendous week,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘I could go to law school out here. I could live in San Diego.’” She applied to USD without even seeing the campus.
“My goal was just to get my law degree, because all the interesting jobs in D.C. go to lawyers.”
When she got a letter that she’d not only been accepted but been named a Dean’s Outstanding Scholar, which typically goes to students who have their pick of the top schools in the country, she was thrilled. “I flew out to see the school and fell in love with it.”
She reveled in her studies even though she didn’t necessarily expect to wind up practicing law. But while serving as a law clerk for the attorney general’s office during the summer of 1999, she was reading transcripts and had an epiphany: “I’d rather be in the courtroom.”
She got her way: for the past 12 years — much of it in San Diego’s South Bay felony unit, as well as serving rotations in the gang unit (“very intense”) and the central pre-trial and disposition unit — and she doesn’t regret a thing.
“I had the luxury of choosing this work because I had a full scholarship to law school,” Ruiz says with candor. “I didn’t have a lot of student loans to repay. ”
But perhaps most important to her is that her principles are never at risk of compromise; prosecutors are duty-bound to only pursue cases that they believe in. “I’m always wearing the white hat,” she says. “If we don’t believe in a case beyond a reasonable doubt, we dismiss it.”
While the work is grueling by any standard — especially cases dealing with children — she takes pride in the positive impact her efforts have for the whole community. “If you can help a child, and there is a good outcome or conviction, it’s just more valuable in comparison to other kinds of cases,” Ruiz explains.
As busy as her caseload keeps her, she still makes time to share her expertise where it’s most needed. “I go to Mexico periodically to train prosecutors, because they’re switching over their criminal justice system. That allows me to be active internationally and feel like I’m giving back.”
It’s a juggling act, but one at which she’s become adept.
“I can only do one thing at a time,” she shrugs. “When you’re in a big trial, you just have to get it done. When you’ve invested so much of yourself and your time and energy into a case, you can’t take half measures.”