Toughest case of her life
Monroe County D.A. Sandra Doorley talks about the Charlie Tan case, gun crime, and her recent battle with cancer
Sandra Doorley’s gaze is a hot laser of truth that cuts through and compels you to confess not only every evil you’ve done in your life, but any you’ve ever entertained doing. It’s penetrating, knowing, and—thanks to her now shorn scalp—lacks anything to diffuse it.
The lack-of-hair-do is a memento she may or may not keep from her battle with cancer; she kind of likes the way it looks. Doorley, who is Monroe County’s district attorney, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2016.
“This is really terrible; I have never Googled it,” she says. “I know it’s not typical blood cancer, but it’s like that. What it was doing is it causes lesions in your bones, and your bones deteriorate and they break.”
She’s in remission now and has her blood drawn weekly as a precaution.
Doorley is a tough litigator and used to high stakes, but, unlike a judge or jury, cancer is unmoved by evidence or strength of argument: all you can do is all you can do.
“It’s been frustrating, but I think that my mindset and my Type A personality and my control, it’s helped me with my cancer because I didn’t sit down and feel sorry for myself,” she says. “I keep on going. I do what the doctors say. I said to my oncologist, ‘When I walk out of this building, I don’t even realize I have cancer.’”
Of course, Doorley and the District Attorney’s office have been in the news recently for more than her health scare; the extremely high-profile Charlie Tan case garnered national attention and generated lots of debate. The charges against Tan, who was accused of killing his father, were dropped in a jaw-dropping decision by Judge James Piampiano in late 2015. (An appellate court later said that Tan couldn’t be retried, but that Piampiano erred when he let Tan go. Piampiano was also censured for talking about the case with the media.)
Doorley calls the Tan case “the gift that keeps on giving.” And she’s not shy about stating frankly what others generally whisper about: that Tan’s socioeconomic status—the family lived in Pittsford—played a role in his treatment, starting with the fact that Tan was granted bail and ending with his walking out of court a free man.
“Gary Craig (from the Democrat and Chronicle) called me, and I said, ‘You know what? This wouldn’t have happened to a black kid from the city.’ Most people are held (in custody) pending a homicide trial. There’s a risk of flight. Charlie wasn’t even an American citizen. He had already fled. So it was just frustrating from the beginning.”
Doorley talked to (585) recently about the Tan case, her cancer, Judge Leticia Astacio’s legal troubles, and the county’s new gun court. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
(585): Did “the people” get justice in the Tan case, either in a legal sense or in a broader, cosmic sense?
DOORLEY: If a jury had returned a verdict of “not guilty,” then justice is served. I honestly believe in the jury system and that justice is served by whatever verdict the jury comes up with. But in this case, the jury was still deliberating. So, no, I don’t think we got justice.
And I think everyone’s forgotten about Jim Tan (Charlie Tan’s father). Here he was, sitting at his desk, working to support his family, running a company. There were no signs of a struggle. He was literally sitting at his desk. His computer is right in front of him. And, you know, shot in the face.
What was your reaction to Judge Piampiano’s decision?
I was home. I had just run for reelection, and I just wanted a day to clean the house and get my life together, so I didn’t come in that day. And all of a sudden, my phones are blowing up and I’m hearing about what’s going on.
I’d never—this is my twenty-sixth year—I’d never seen anything like it. I think there were some curse words that came out of my mouth.
I just couldn’t believe it. Here we had a case: The mother said, “My son did it.” Charlie says, “I did it.” His fingerprints were on the [bullet] casings. His fingerprints were on the box of ammunition for the shotgun. We knew that he was seen trying to buy the shotgun. It was a pretty darned good circumstantial case. I’ve always said I’ve had murder convictions affirmed by the court of appeals on less evidence.
We always thought that maybe he would have gone with an argument that there was a struggle and he had to do it in self-defense. But there was absolutely no sign of a struggle at all. The things on [Jim Tan’s] desk were perfectly aligned.
Let’s talk about Judge Leticia Astacio. She’s under investigation by the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct after her DWI conviction. When do you expect a decision? What are the options in this case? I think what people want to know is if there is a chance she’ll ever sit on the bench again. [Doorley’s response was recorded before Judge Astacio was convicted, for the second time, of violating the conditions of her sentence. She was denied bail and is in custody pending her trial, which is scheduled for July 6.]
I have no idea. We’ve been out of that whole investigation because, if she does come back on the bench, we’ve got to appear in front of her every day.
I’m just looking at, historically, what’s happened. They don’t get rid of judges for DWI offenses. I would suspect that she would be back on the bench. She could be suspended. She could be censured. There’s an admonishment—kind of the same thing that was done with Piampiano.
A 2016 D&C story said that gun violence was down and that the new gun court is probably responsible for at least some of the reduction. But homicides were up in 2016. Does that mean that the court is, in fact, not working out as hoped?
I just pulled stats. This is through the end of March. Violent crime is up slightly over the five-year average. Firearm-related violent crimes, which could be robberies and such, were up over the five-year average and up twenty-nine percent over last year. This is something we put together, and I was going to send this over to RIT to start analyzing it.
I do think it’s working. We’re still sending the appropriate people to prison. We’re not being lenient on guns. But we’re looking at the kids who perhaps don’t have a record, and they’re carrying a gun for self-protection. We’re giving them the opportunity to do interim probation or to do something [else] to turn their life around.
You don’t want to take a seventeen-year-old with no record who’s carrying a gun for protection and send him to state prison. You want to give him the opportunity to change his life, so that’s the purpose of the gun court.
But doesn’t the fact that homicides have gone up say something about the gun court?
I don’t think so. I can say, because there’s an emphasis on gun crimes, the gun arrests in the city are up because there’s more of a special, focused detail to make sure we’re taking the guns off the street. So in terms of gun crime being up, it’s because of focused deterrents—we’re trying to get the guns off the street.
There was a lot of talk not too long ago about backlogs of untested rape kits. It seemed to be a national problem. How many untested sexual assault kits does the county have currently?
None. We did something through DCJS [New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services]. We had to go in and count all the rape kits, and they’re up to speed, which is a good thing. The lab just worked very hard.
Are there cases where the statute of limitations expires because it has taken too long to process the kit?
No, because there’s no statute of limitations on rape cases. That was a change a couple of years ago. That’s a state law which was very helpful for us, especially when having all the rape kits and the stranger rapes: if you’re able to determine DNA profile and you put it into the databank and you can identify somewhere down the line serial rapists. So they eliminated the statute of limitations to give us the ability to do that.
You were diagnosed with cancer in 2016. How are you doing?
I was going to the gym all the time. The elliptical is my favorite thing. Really a month before my diagnosis, I had, like, a pull behind my back between my shoulder blades from all of the movement and I kept going to my chiropractor saying, “Can you fix it? I must have done something.” And he couldn’t adjust me. And he sent me for X-rays and he found a compression fracture in my back, so some of my vertebrae had started to compress and break.
I went to my doctor, and my doctor said, “Oh, you must have, probably, an old injury. Take some Advil and call me in the morning. And my chiropractor still didn’t like that, so he sent me for an MRI and a CT scan. And the next thing you know, he comes to my house one night and said “We think it’s myeloma.”
I had blood tests, and I was in the hospital the next day. It came out of the blue. My doctor kept saying, “Were you tired? What were your other symptoms?” And I’m a mother of two, I just had an election, I run an office. Of course I was a little tired. Nothing crazy.
I went through chemo this summer (2016), and it cured me. And then my next step was in the fall, I was in remission, they did a stem cell transplant. Which was the worst thing ever. They took out all my white blood cells. I harvested my own white blood cells, and they cleaned them and purified them and then they gave me a heavy dose of chemo, which is how I lost my hair. And then they put these purified cells back in, and I would start to build healthy white blood cells.
I’m in remission. I guess what they say with myeloma, it’s not a curable cancer, but it’s a treatable cancer. They check me. I have my blood drawn every week. They check me to make sure that my levels are fine.
Do you think you should’ve stepped aside temporarily while this was going on?
You know what, I felt like I was of sound mind and still able to make decisions. I enjoyed the diversion and loved having people come up and talk about cases. It’s my lifeline. I really think it helps me get through it all.
Is there anything about being a prosecutor that helped you in your cancer fight? Did the medical staff feel like they were being cross-examined?
Oh, they did. Trust me. There were times when I had a little red flag in my folder: “The patient’s not being very good today.”
I’m a fighter. I ask questions. I feel like I was able to educate myself more with the nurses and to be more of an advocate for myself.
It was frustrating. The first time I was there, in April, I was there a little over three-and-a-half weeks. I went from thinking I was perfectly healthy and that I had just done something at the gym to being diagnosed with this cancer that I had never even heard of.
My mother had breast cancer. It came back twice. And she ended up living for a while after a diagnosis, but it ended up ruining her heart, and that’s what she ended up dying from. So it was assumed that cancer runs in the family and I would wind up with breast cancer. Never thought that it would be myeloma. I never even heard of myeloma. When my chiropractor said, “This is what you have,” I said, “Well, what is it?”
Will you continue to try cases personally? How do you choose which you’re going to try yourself?
Yes. I just took a new case—Kevin Quander. The parolee. He’s the one accused of killing Charlotte Lahr at the South Avenue Wine and Liquor store. I looked at the evidence in this case. I looked at the video, and something inside of me said, “You need to try this case just to get justice for Charlotte.” It’s probably one of the most gruesome murders I’ve ever seen.
The allegations are he beat her to death with a wine bottle in the course of a robbery; five in the afternoon. Her store is right across from the Al Sigl Center on Elmwood. She owned it. She was just there, going about her business. Just a hardworking woman who was trying to make a life for herself.
The trial is in September.
Maybe it’s a sexist question, but I’ve got to ask you about the hair. It’s a striking difference.
You sound like my husband: “Your hair’s always covering your face!” I kind of like it like this. My family likes it better. So many people have told me I look like Jamie Lee Curtis. Literally, close to twenty people now. I think that’s really funny.
Christine Carrie Fien is a writer who lives in Chili with her husband and son.