- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- HIGH-PROFILE PROSECUTOR: Assistant District Attorney Tim Covello has joined Deputy D.A. Dan Dow on the June 2014 ticket to replace elected D.A. Gerry Shea, when the latter steps down in 2015.
If you’ve sat in on some of the hardcore criminal trials taking place in the San Luis Obispo County Courthouse over the last 15 years, you’ve probably seen Tim Covello.
If you’re like most people and prefer to stay away from detailed descriptions of especially heinous acts and the hardened criminals who carry them out, then it’s people like Covello you depend on to keep those other folks behind bars.
Covello is the second person to announce his candidacy for SLO County district attorney since Gerry Shea said he wouldn’t seek a fifth term in the June primary election. Covello is the current assistant district attorney—Shea’s second in command—and has been with the office since 1993. He’s long been expected to seek the top prosecutor spot.
Dan Dow, one of the office’s roughly 30 deputy district attorneys, announced his candidacy in November.
As the head of the office’s felony trial division, Covello successfully prosecuted some of the most infamous local cases, including that of Rex Krebs, who was sentenced to the death penalty in 2001 for kidnapping and murdering two San Luis Obispo college students. Covello tried that case with now-Superior Court Judge John Trice. Most recently, Covello brought down all five defendants in the kidnapping and murder of 15-year-old Dystiny Myers.
A native of Bakersfield, Covello graduated from UC Berkeley and later the University of Wisconsin Law School, where he taught legal research and writing. He worked for a firm representing corporations and banks in civil work, and also in pro bono work for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, before joining the SLO County D.A.’s Office.
Covello described his style in the courtroom as a “combination of skill set and drive.” When asked what specifically drives him, Covello responded simply: “Justice.”
“A lot of those very serious cases can be emotionally devastating and draining,” Covello told New Times. “But you do learn to put your emotions aside because if these folks walk away from a case like that, somebody will get hurt. In those cases, we will leave no stone unturned to bring them to justice.”
As the second-in-command, Covello spends less time in court in deference to his more managerial role. His current day-to-day duties see him overseeing the felony teams of several of the office’s divisions and directly supervising different teams of attorneys. He’s also in charge of reviewing cases of particularly high importance, including murder.
One of his largest out-of-the-courtroom accomplishments was to help implement the office’s modernized case management system, a two-year project aimed at improving communication between agencies, as well as the development of an electronic search warrant form to streamline the process in securing warrants for law enforcement officers.
“It’s safe to say that I’ve tried just about every type of case. But everybody looks for professional growth,” he said about wanting to pursue the elected position. “For one thing, I’ve been here for 20 years. I’ve been working on a lot of office development, and I still have projects that are left undone.”
Despite his reputation as being tough, Covello said that he’s always been a proponent of alternative methods of rehabilitation rather than incarceration, including drug treatment court, the local version of which he said he spent two years working to get implemented.
“There’s always room for extenuating circumstances,” he said. “You have to look at the totality of the situation. What will bring the best results for the community?”
Another example of the kind of treatment Covello mentions is the six-month-old local version of Veterans Treatment Court. He said that while Dow was instrumental in pursuing the program, Covello drafted the procedures. Though numerous sources who spoke to New Times for this and previous coverage said there was some initial resistance to the program in the local D.A.’s Office, Covello said he was a supporter of the program early on.
“Moving forward, as we have to constantly re-evaluate how best to marshal our resources, we’re going to have to be much more creative in terms of alternative approaches to criminal justice,” he said.
Asked about whether and how he views the differences between the letter and the spirit of the law, Covello said that’s a loaded question.
“You can’t handle every case the same. Handling every case the same is what led us to realignment,” Covello said, in reference to the state’s efforts to reduce prison overcrowding by housing non-violent, low-level criminals in county jails with an increased emphasis on drug and behavioral health treatment.
The SLO County D.A.’s Office is known for having a relatively high conviction rate. In other words, they don’t lose a lot of cases, and they’re not squeamish about laying plea bargains on the table to avoid it.
“Plea bargaining is very much a part of our system. It’s not about good or bad,” he said. “I don’t believe in keeping statistics of wins and losses—and frankly, I’m suspicious of a prosecutor that does. That gets in the way of justice.
“But that said, I’ve never met a prosecutor in my career that has put winning above justice,” he added.
Though Covello’s campaign website lists a number of endorsements from both the legal and law enforcement community, those who have backed him from his own office are currently retired. In comparison, Dow currently lists nearly 20 deputy D.A.s as supporters. But Covello has earned the support of Pismo Beach Police Chief Jeff Norton; retired chief investigator for the D.A.’s Office, Doug Odom; and Cindy-Marie Absey, director of the office’s Victims and Witnesses Assistance Division.
He listed levels of experience, “depth and breadth of knowledge,” and deeper roots in the community as differences between himself and his opponent.
“Literally this has been my life’s work. I’ve done just about everything a lawyer can do,” he said.
The overwhelming sense from talking with the assistant D.A. is that he has a tremendous amount of respect for his boss.
Asked for his assessment of Shea’s performance as the head of the office for the last 15 years, Covello noted that Shea has been his supervisor every step in his career since he joined the office in 1993, before Shea was first elected. He described his boss as thoughtful, receptive to the community, and a model of how good leadership can encourage collaboration between different agencies.
Shea previously told New Times that he initially expected to run for a fifth term in the June primary, but that “personal family matters” led him to abandon the idea.
Asked whether he would have run against his boss, Covello replied: “I never would have run against him.”
News Editor Matt Fountain can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.