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July 30, 1999
Idealist Lawyer Has Her Pay Day in Court
Sonia Chopra in Los Angeles
Among the many colourful criminals Alka Sagar has tried, a retired British general stands apart.
For, to nail down the man who used to boast that he was personally acquainted with the British Queen was darn tough, says Sagar, deputy chief of the Major Crimes Section in the US Attorney's Los Angeles office.
"It was a difficult case because the entire investigation was reconstructed on paper with very little live evidence," says the 39-year-old Sagar.
But when the investigators managed to nab a Turkish national who was transferring the money into the account of the con man, evidence began to accumulate against him.
The case of US vs Marc Debden-Moss in 1997 finally jailed the man who pretended to be a commodity dealer and took money with the promise of selling large amounts of coal and sugar.
Scotland Yard, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service commended Sagar for her prosecutorial talent.
Sagar, named by her peers and law publications as one of the best trial lawyers in Los Angeles, remembers the day many years ago when she was a law intern in the city. She had walked into a federal courtroom one day and, on chancing upon the judge, had said that one day she would try cases in the same courtroom.
Sagar has not only tried cases in that very courtroom, but as one of the key law officials in Los Angeles, she supervises 20 attorneys and assists her chief in complex investigations of cases involving narcotics, fraud, murder and murder for hire, arson, child pornography and firearm violations.
"I have this deep concern for the victims and I fight to win vindication for them and sometimes these cases receive very little attention," says Sagar, who prosecuted the nation's first adoption fraud case (US vs Leanne Dees).
Dees had promised her unborn child to 10 couples in different states and received money from all of them.
"I believe in justice. I believe in the ethics and the morality that justice stands for. I am always inspired by the pursuit of the truth," Sagar says.
Born in Jinja, a small town on the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda, Sagar was brought up in Montreal, Canada. Earlier, her family lived in Bangalore for 10 months.
"My father was a movie buff. He loved watching those old movies like Dr Zhivago where there was heavy snow and people wore these huge fur coats. He always told me how he wanted to be in a snowy climate," says Sagar, explaining her father's wanderlust.
The family finally settled in California where Sagar graduated in anthropology from the University of California at Los Angeles, then went back to get another degree, in criminal justice.
"I always had this affinity for law. I thought it was a way to help the world, sort of make things better," she says. But it was international law that she wanted to get into at first.
Things, however, worked out a little differently. At age 21, she spent one summer as an intern in a federal judge's office and was "awed and mesmerised" at the whole legal process, especially "the arguments in court".
The following summer, Sagar was back in the courtroom as a law clerk. She wanted to stay on, but the federal prosecutors had an unspoken rule that all candidates should work outside before they were re-hired. So, for two years, Sagar worked at the Los Angeles office of a law firm, Bronson, Bronson & McKennon, and she immediately saw the difference between the private and the public sector.
"The money was much more, but lawyers had to represent the clients whether they are guilty or not," she says. "But that was something very hard if you had compelling evidence that your client was guilty and you still had to do your job."
The other thing that "outraged" her were the ways in which the lawyers would bill clients. After a two-year stint at the firm, Sagar was back where she belonged - in the prosecutor's office.
"The best thing about this job is that you get to salvage your conscience," she says. "If you feel -- and this is your decision alone -- that the person is not guilty or you do not have enough evidence, you do not have to go to trial. The US government is your client and you have this complete autonomy."
During the first two months of her employment, Sagar was thrown into a big drug case that made headlines everyday. She worked nearly 20 hours a day for several weeks to win the case. "After that all the cases seemed simple," she smiles.
In 1993, Sagar launched an intensive three-year grand jury investigation, which struck at a profitable personal injury insurance scam. She successfully put the scam artists out of business, receiving the Attorney General's Director Award for her efforts.
Being in contact with criminals, Sagar has realised that "there is no typical profile of a criminal".
"There are all kinds, young and old, poor and rich, men and women, and they all have two things in common. They are motivated by greed and all believe that they can get away with this [their crime]," she says.
But at the end, there are two kinds - some who "protest till the very end that they are innocent" and others "who freely admit every single detail". The latter ones "save time" and "make the job easier", says Sagar.
At any given time, Sagar carries about 40 cases, some new, some being appealed. After working for 60 hours a week, Sagar also has to make time for her husband, a self-employed businessman, and their son, 10, and daughter, 5.
She has passed on her love of reading to her children who "inspire and rejuvenate" her "with their innocence". Last summer, they read about art. This summer, it is music. "Nothing is more rewarding than seeing the world through my children's innocence. It rejuvenates me," says the attorney, who frequently sees the very dark side of humanity.
Sagar also has other ambitions she would like to pursue someday. "I would love to write books. About life and philosophy," says the lady, who used to read a book a week and now cannot remember the last time she read one.
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