Donald Heller, a respected figure in Sacramento’s legal community who helped prosecute Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme for her attempt to assassinate President Gerald R. Ford prior to becoming one of California’s most prominent criminal defense attorneys, died late last month after a long bout with prostate cancer. He was 79.Born in the Bronx in 1943, Heller began his life on the east coast, attending college at Queens College of the City University of New York and then Brooklyn Law School, earning his Juris Doctorate in 1969. He passed the bar in New York and California and promptly went to work as a New York prosecutor before transferring to the west coast to work as a prosecutor for the Eastern District of California.

As a prosecutor, Heller made his name while working with former U.S. Attorney Dwayne Keyes to prosecute Fromme, a member of the Charles Manson “family” who was arrested after attempting to shoot President Ford in Sacramento’s Capitol Park on Sept. 5, 1975.

The case quickly became a media circus, with Fromme refusing to cooperate with her defense counsel. Heller later told the press she had developed a strong dislike for him as the young chief assistant federal prosecutor, who won a conviction and life sentence in the case. Fromme from was released in 2009 —though thankfully she never came after Heller for revenge.

Even toward the end of his life, Heller made headlines. In 2019, he worked as a defense attorney for disgraced college recruiter Rick Singer, the mastermind behind the “Operation Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal. Singer was charged with spearheading a $25 million college entrance exam cheating scheme, which ensnared Hollywood actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman among others. Singer, who had published a book in 2014 that stressed the need to establish a “personal brand” to get into a top school, ultimately took responsibility for his crimes, pled guilty and served 15 months in prison.

“He is very remorseful for getting into this mess” and is cooperating with investigators, Heller told the press aid after a court appearance on behalf of his client who had been in the college prep business since 1994, and “he’s helped a lot of people pro-bono who got into college.” Even in his late 70s, Heller–always a master when it came to feeding the media a juicy quote, said “the sad thing is he didn’t prep Trump kids because he probably would have gotten a pardon.”

Aside from the case that made him famous, Heller also became most notable in California for his involvement with the death penalty. In 1978, he became the author of the Briggs Initiative (named for its sponsor, state Sen. John Briggs), a state ballot measure that broadly expanded the kinds of murders eligible for capital punishment. It helped make California’s the most populous and expensive death row in the nation.

Heller was never shy about telling people what he thought about the death penalty. Once, when he was prosecuting a case, Heller made a public statement that “there ought to be a death penalty for this crime, and if there was he would like to personally pull the switch,” Senior U.S. District Judge William B. Shubb told the Sacramento Bee, which prompted Shubb to have a light switch mounted on a plaque as a cheeky gift to Heller with a metal tag that read, “The Switch.”

However, Heller later became an outspoken opponent of the death penalty and fought to end capital punishment in California. He served as a lead proponent of Proposition 34, a 2012 initiative to abolish the practice that failed 52% to 48%.

Heller said he began speaking out against capital punishment after coming to believe that California had executed a “factually innocent” inmate in the case of Tommy Thompson in 1998.

Thompson was convicted of special-circumstance murder and rape under the Briggs Initiative. There were two defendants in the case; Thompson was tried first. He was alleged to be the actual rapist-murderer, and was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, mostly due to the testimony of a professional jailhouse informant.

In the co-defendant’s trial, the prosecutor suddenly switched theories: it was no longer Thompson who was the alleged rapist-murderer, but the accomplice. While you can aid and abet to qualify for the death penalty, an accomplice must have the intent to kill to be death penalty eligible. The co-defendant accomplice was convicted of second-degree murder, but the prosecutor made no effort to notify Thompson’s trial judge that evidence now showed that Thompson was not the actual murderer. The trial judge would have had the authority to rectify the erroneous judgment.

Despite the conviction, Heller was not convinced that Thompson committed the crime that sent him to the death chamber. Even before the execution, Heller was having doubts, he said in an L.A. Times article. He had become a defense lawyer and saw attorneys he considered “marginal” assigned to represent capital defendants.

When later interviewed L.A. Times columnist Pat Morrison about his decision to change his stance on the death penalty, Heller said his eyes were opened to things he never thought about when he first wrote the Briggs Initiative.

“One was the enormous toll it took on people involved. The human element — not [so much] the defendants but the people in the system,” Heller said. “I have a high regard for prosecutors — I could count on one hand the prosecutors I felt were unethical — but I saw the aggressiveness to get death. It became, with some, a game. I would see the quality of the court-appointed lawyers. Some were good, some mediocre, some less than mediocre. Defendants didn’t get what they were entitled to, and that’s why you [saw] quite a few reversals of verdicts…What the death penalty brought about [was] bad decisions and bad law.”

Throughout his career, Heller was involved in a number of high-profile cases involving white collar crime.

In 1993, Heller defended Constantine “Koko” Pappadopoulos, a Greek immigrant and former house painter who became a multimillionaire land developer in Sacramento. He defended Pappadopoulos against charges that he and his wife intentionally burned down their 11,000 square foot mansion to collect $4.5 million in insurance money after they were convicted in 1993. Pappadopoulos skipped bail and escaped to Greece, leaving his wife to serve a decade in prison.

“He jumped bail and fled and basically left his wife here holding the bag,” Heller told the press. At the time, Heller had planned to appeal the conviction. “This whole thing is just a tragedy. I believe in our system and when someone disregards it, it’s very disturbing,” he said.

Heller was known as a lawyer who was so relentless in his job that he earned the affectionate nickname “Mad Dog” from friends.

In 1994, Heller was defending lobbyist Clay Jackson against an attempted bribery charge. Jackson was a former $2 million-a-year lobbyist and the insurance industry’s premier advocate in the California Legislature. In the case known as the “Shrimp Scam”. Jackson was among a dozen people arrested in an FBI sting involving a phony shrimp wholesaling business.

Heller’s main opponent in the case was Alan Robbins, who became the government’s star witness and once a powerful state senator who was chair of the Senate Insurance Committee. In the early ‘90s, Robbins was caught up in the Capitol corruption investigation, pleaded guilty, and agreed to work with the prosecution as an informant.

Heller repeatedly objected to the FBI’s use of Robbins, an admitted felon, as an undercover operative. When asked for his opinion on Robbins’ role in the probe by the Sac Bee, Heller replied, “As long as the sewers are running Alan Robbins will never lack for transportation.”

Heller also attacked the FBI for using tactics that he alleged were intended to intimidate character witnesses for Jackson. According to the L.A. Times, in a confidential letter to the court, Heller contended that the FBI’s lead agent in the case, James Wedick Jr., asked questions about Jackson’s sexual relationships, which had no bearing on the charges against him and were “calculated to intimidate prospective defense witnesses and smear Mr. Jackson’s good name in Mr. Jackson’s community,” Heller wrote.

Despite his “Mad Dog” persona, Heller was also a long tenured member of the Anthony M. Kennedy Inn of Court, an organization that promotes ethics in the law and was often sought out by younger members for advice.

Heller reportedly died at home, surrounded by family. He is survived by his wife of 46 years, Lesley, sons Michael and Joshua, daughter Alexandra, daughter-in-law Dolly, and grandchildren Jacob, Samuel and Leonard. A memorial service was held July 1 in Sacramento.

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