UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Fall 2009
mission
incredible
power to
the people
moving at
warp speed
wide world
of deportes
under
pressure
a passion
for justice
a passion for justice
Tenacity, truth, justice and taking a stand for victims
by Nathan Dinsdale

PHOTO BY TIM MANTOANI

[crime fighter] It’s early Friday evening, but Michelle Paradise still has serious work to do. Typically that would entail sifting through a mountain of evidence, court documents and witness testimony. But the task presently before the Riverside County senior deputy district attorney bears particular urgency.

“My daughter has a dance recital tonight,” Paradise laughs. “I have to get home and curl her hair.”

The apple-pie geniality of Paradise ’94 (J.D. ’97), a 43-year-old mother of two, stands in contrast to the legal tenacity that earned her a “Bulldog Award” in 2005 from the Riverside D.A.’s office for her tireless resolve as a prosecutor. But, in fact, it’s the absence of domestic tranquility — both in her own upbringing and in the lives of the victims she represents — that largely fuels her determination in the courtroom.

“I’ve always known I wanted to be a lawyer ever since I was a kid,” Paradise says. “At 8 or 9 years old, I don’t know that I understood the distinctions between the different types of law, I just knew it was a profession where I could take care of myself and have a sense of power over my life.”

Paradise spent most of her childhood living in a small Illinois farm community where she was raised in a tumultuous home environment rife with violence and substance abuse.

“As soon as I turned 18, I took $200 and a suitcase and flew to California and never looked back,” Paradise says. “I left Illinois without really having a plan; I was just getting away from a very abusive and unhealthy environment.”

Paradise lived with a friend in Riverside for a few weeks before setting out on her own. She enrolled at Riverside Community College and earned an associate’s degree in administration of justice while garnering local and national honors as a member of the debate team. She simultaneously worked two security jobs to make ends meet, one as a “loss prevention” employee busting shoplifters at a Robinson’s department store and the other as a dispatcher at an amusement park.

“I just kind of fell into that field when I came to California,” Paradise says. “It just felt right, knowing that I wanted to be nothing like my own family and instead be on the pro-law side of things.”

By age 22, Paradise had assumed legal custody of her 12-year-old sister and accepted a scholarship to study at USD while also working full-time as a 911 dispatcher for the Riverside Police Department. She commuted to USD and attended classes twice a week — from dusk until dawn — using her rare idle time to study in the cafeteria or catch a quick nap in a quiet corner of the library.

While her undergraduate tenure was far from typical, Paradise credits USD professors like Larry Williamson and his communication studies class for helping her bridge the gap between her own experience and those of others.

“I’ve always been what I would describe as a free spirit, and Dr. Williamson was a little bit of a free spirit too so I could relate to him,” Paradise says. “He could connect to all different types of people, and I think he really taught me how to relate to others on a personal as well as professional level.”

After graduating summa cum laude in 1994 with a degree in communication studies, Paradise went on to USD’s School of Law and became a member of the national mock trial team. By then she had quit her full-time job, moved to San Diego and enveloped herself in a slightly more traditional scholastic life, even managing to spend six months in Oxford, England, as part of a USD study abroad program, an experience she calls “one of the best opportunities of my life.”

Paradise says she learned how to become an effective trial attorney under the tutelage of USD mock trial professor Richard “Corky” Wharton, who hammered home the fundamentals of court procedures and the etiquette of courtroom presentation.

“I remember Corky saying that the table you sit at should be clean and organized, not messy and chaotic, because that’s how you’ll be viewed,” Paradise says. “To this day, I make sure everything has its place on the table. There are a lot of those little nuances that I still use.”

After graduating, Paradise joined the Riverside D.A.’s office and soon developed an affinity for trying cases involving domestic violence and child abuse, drawing valuable insights from her USD education as well as her experience as a 911 dispatcher and her own turbulent childhood. And while she now mostly handles homicide and death penalty cases, Paradise is still passionate about prosecuting crimes against children.

“I can’t tell you the countless times where nobody was representing the victim but the prosecution,” Paradise says. “You may be the only voice for the victim because the only other person is the defendant. Winning those cases is very rewarding because without a victory it’s as if that child will never get justice in any shape or form.”

Not that Paradise knows much about losing. After more than a decade as a prosecutor, her record is virtually spotless: She has never failed to secure a guilty verdict. “I’ve never lost a case by that standard,” Paradise says. “But there are cases where I feel a personal loss, when someone is found guilty on one charge but not guilty on another, or they plead to a lesser charge. People congratulate you but it’s hard to thank them because you feel like in those instances justice hasn’t been completely done.”

In early 2006, Paradise was featured on Dateline NBC’s controversial “To Catch a Predator” investigative series aimed at ensnaring suspected sexual predators. She was the trial team leader for the Riverside D.A.’s sexual assault unit at the time and helped coordinate the undercover sting operation, which eventually led to 51 arrests.

“It was a very educational and insightful experience for me,” Paradise says. “We had no idea we would get that many arrests. It was amazing even to me to see just how many people came out of the woodwork to get at these children.”

After the Dateline NBC episode aired, she was invited to lecture at various conferences and school assemblies. In addition, her caseload — nine jury trials leading to nine convictions and eight life sentences in 2006 alone — earned her accolades as both the Riverside County and the California District Attorneys Association “Prosecutor of the Year.” And while those honors illustrate her phenomenal rise to legal prominence, Paradise is reticent about receiving such laudatory acknowledgements.

“It’s nice to be recognized, but I look at it like I’m just doing my job as much as any prosecutor,” she says. “It’s very flattering, but at the same time it’s like, ‘Why me over anyone else?’ I hold myself to the highest standards, and I like to believe that all other prosecutors do the same because people look to us to represent truth and justice.”

mission
incredible
power to
the people
moving at
warp speed
wide world
of deportes
under
pressure
a passion
for justice