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USD grad serves as prominent Riverside district attorney

In the 10 years since she graduated from the University of San Diego School of Law, Michelle Paradise has developed a strong professional reputation as a Riverside County deputy district attorney. Last year, she appeared on the Dateline NBC series, "To Catch a Predator," and she currently holds a trial record of 54 out of 56 felony convictions (with two hung), and eight misdemeanor trial convictions.

"I love my job -- every day I get to be an advocate for a victim," she said. "I am happiest being a prosecutor because I don't have any ethical or moral issues with my job -- I'm comfortable because I am doing the right thing and don't have to question it."

Michelle Paradise

Paradise has gained a broad range of experience at the Riverside County district attorney's office, ranging from assignments as a misdemeanor attorney in the juvenile court to being prosecutor on the felony trial team. She has experience in all units now, and currently is a member of the homicide unit.

In January 2006, Paradise was the trial team leader of the Sexual Assault and Child Abuse (SACA) unit and was approached about Dateline setting up a sexual predator sting in Riverside.

"I began the Dateline sting by consulting with the NBC attorneys on the legalities of recording the suspects and whether or not there would be a violation of their first amendment rights," Paradise said. "From there, it grew into much more involvement and I was interviewed by NBC correspondent Chris Hansen on the show."

The Southern California show was the third in the "To Catch a Predator" series, and this was the first time that law enforcement was involved.

"Dateline had received some criticism for not prosecuting the people they were catching on the show," Paradise said. "The Riverside Sheriff's department got involved and our office would be prosecuting the cases."

Dateline worked with volunteers from the Web site, perverted-justice.com, who posed as boys and girls between the ages of 11-14 years old. The volunteers went online, set up a profile, and waited for predators to contact them.

"The conversations would start with the predators talking about sex. For the prosecution, there was no question -- they laid out their intent in the chat log and would make it clear what they wanted to do to the child."

In just three days, 51 men showed up at the sting, the highest number of predators out of the 10 total shows in the Dateline series. It was such a large number that on the second day of the sting, there were even three men who showed up within minutes of each other. The district attorney's office filed criminal charges against all 51, and all were prosecuted with the exception of 17 who pled guilty, with no plea bargains or deals offered.

"We were the first county to prosecute these cases on this kind of magnitude," Paradise said. "We were hit with a lot of legal issues and defense attorneys filing every imaginable motion on the charges, so we had to address those and it took a while."

After the Dateline episode aired, Paradise was flooded with calls across the nation from prosecution offices and law enforcement agencies asking about how to implement similar operations. She was interviewed on the Today Show, MSNBC's Abrams Report, BBC Television, and local radio stations KNX and KPIE.

"Dateline made people aware of the problem and its magnitude," Paradise said. "It's mind boggling -- if 51 men came to this one street to molest a child, what is happening around the corner, in our city or county?"

The experience with Dateline was actually a portion of what Paradise was doing while working with the SACA unit. Paradise dealt with even more egregious cases on a regular basis, such as multiple victim cases and severe child abuse resulting in death. She worked specifically with child abuse cases and is now known as an expert in shaken baby syndrome.

"Lately I've been the one with the medical experience, cross examining some of the best-known defense experts in the country on shaken babies, including the doctor who testified on behalf of the British nanny case," she said.

Paradise delved into her first shaken baby case five years ago, and worked with a team at Loma Linda University Children's Hospital to thoroughly understand how the brain, the eyes, and spinal cord were affected by shaking.

"I worked with forensic pediatricians, ophthalmologists and neurosurgeons, and there was something new in each case I continued to learn more," Paradise said. "These cases are medically controversial and the defense usually wins, with the most well-known doctors in the country. Jurors are often confused by the medical complexity of the trauma, so I had to learn how to teach them about it."

In 2006, Paradise conducted nine jury trials and spent 89 days in trial. She secured convictions in all nine cases and had 63 guilty verdicts read, including two murders, six major sexual assault trials with 14 victims, and one child abuse case where the 19-month-old victim was left paralyzed on one side. The cases that dealt with offenses against children were often the most disturbing for her.

"It's always worth it in the end, though, because I'm putting away the person that hurt the child," she said. "Those are easy cases to get passionate about."

Severson is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

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