As an associate court attorney, M.J. Mezzina researches the law and drafts rulings on felony criminal cases for Queens Supreme Court judges. She has loved criminal justice since discovering her older brother’s criminology textbook when she was 14. Mezzina, 65, started work as a court attorney 38 years ago – her first and only job after earning her J.D. at St. John’s University School of Law.
YOU WORKED IN ADVERTISING FOR EIGHT MONTHS BEFORE LAW SCHOOL. WHAT HAPPENED?
Advertising…is the worst field ever. … It’s like selling your soul. … It’s just a terrible industry, and I wasn’t meant for it. … It was a meeting with… ad execs for Frito-Lay. I said, “Don’t you ever get the feeling that you’ve now saturated the market with Frito Lays? Like you’ve now sold Frito-Lays to everybody who’s ever going to eat them? Because I don’t like Fritos. I feel like at some point, isn’t it enough?”
WHY DO YOU LOVE CRIMINAL LAW?
Criminal law is so dynamic and it’s so interesting and it’s so impactful for this one person and for the [people] that are the victims—it’s real human drama all the time.
YOU CAN WRITE A DECISION WITHOUT LOOKING AT THE DEMOGRAPHICS OF THE DEFENDANT?
Right. … Better that I don’t know. Sometimes you look at a person, you feel sympathy. … It happens with women. I think women get a little bit of a break because people don’t expect women to be in the court system. You’re not dying to put them in prison.
IF A JUDGE ASKS YOU TO WRITE A DECISION YOU DON’T FEEL COMFORTABLE WITH, DO YOU HAVE TO WRITE IT?
I don’t. … I’m in the law department, so I don’t really work for any one judge; I’m giving you advice and I’m happy to do your law and I’ll write it the way I see it. … If you don’t like what I’m saying then write what you want. … I’m not going to write something that’s clearly not the law.
ARE YOU, OR THE JUDGES, PARTIAL TO THE D.A.’S OFFICE?
It’s hard not to lean in a certain direction. … Sometimes in a case you might lean right, and sometimes in a case you might lean left. But it really doesn’t matter. You’re guided by what the law is and that’s what you have to do.
ARE THERE MANY WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS IN QUEENS?
It may be that I don’t see as much, but, what I see, people who get convicted did it. … Especially on all possessory cases. Bingo. C’mon. You’ll have people who [are] charged with burglary, they’re found with the jewelry in their pocket, and the complainant says he was six-foot-tall and the defendant will be like, “I’m 5’10!” Hello. You had the jewelry in your pocket. I don’t care that not everything is in sync. I know you did it. You had the jewelry in your pocket.
DOES YOUR WORK COME HOME WITH YOU?
It always comes home, but not in a bad way. … There’s another part [court section] – the special victims part – the woman who had that part would sometimes come to lunch and cry, just cry. And that went home with her all the time. Because that’s the sexual abuse of children, and it’s just shaken baby cases. … I did it for 11 months, and I said I can’t do this part anymore. … You get used to robberies and burglaries and drug cases and even murders. That kind of case, it’s very hard to do.
IS THERE ANYTHING ABOUT THE LAW AS IT STANDS THAT DOESN’T TOTALLY SERVE JUSTICE? WHERE WOULD YOU MAKE CHANGES?
An open file policy. I think that defendants should see everything in the People’s file. I don’t think there should be any surprises. … I don’t like the gamesmanship that goes on, on both sides… Let the law and the facts and the people decide it. …
I think suppression issues should be a little clearer, … there’s so much leeway. But, having said that, every case is different and almost requires the flexibility and the fluidity that you have. That ends up bringing disparate decisions on very similar types of cases. You can’t help that. The human equation is there.
Header photo: Time ticks outside the Queens Supreme Court – Criminal Term. (The Ink/Josephine Bradlee).