A Servant's Pursuit of Justice

by Bethany Wagner

As he enters the courtroom, Mike Hestrin, JD, Riverside County district attorney, senses the pressure of the cases at hand demanding justice. Amidst the courtroom procedures and legal intricacies, one thing remains foremost in his mind: serving the victims and their loved ones. “As district attorney, I seek justice for them and all of society,” said Hestrin.

Hestrin, who also works as an adjunct professor in Azusa Pacific’s Department of History and Political Science, landed this new role last June after a long campaign season. In addition to his regular duties as county district attorney, Hestrin envisions establishing a community prosecution unit, a group of 250 Riverside lawyers volunteering in crime reduction programs around the county.

The initial push toward a public service career grew from his family roots. “My dad worked hard as a police officer, and my mom served as a social worker,” said Hestrin. “They sparked a drive to serve my community.” He fueled this emerging passion as an undergraduate history student at the University of Arizona. He went on to simultaneously earn an M.A. in Latin American Studies and JD at Stanford University.

Hestrin worked for 17 years as a senior deputy district attorney, prosecuting more than 100 criminal jury trials, including homicide and abuse cases. In his highest profile case, an arsonist was charged with starting intentional fires, including the Esperanza Fire in Cabazon, California, which resulted in the deaths of five firefighters in 2006. After Hestrin’s prosecution, the jury found the suspect guilty.

“I really connected with the victims’ families during that time,” said Hestrin. “Survivors never get complete closure—their loved one being taken from them is an irreversible injustice in itself. But reaching a fair verdict puts a stop to further injustices that bring more pain.”

In another case in 2010, a hitman for the Mexican mafia was charged with killing a gang member. When the jury came back with the guilty verdict, the victim’s mother pulled Hestrin aside to express her gratitude. “She told me that she didn’t think anyone would care about the death of her son, because of his status as a gang member. She was so thankful to have someone fight on her behalf for justice,” said Hestrin. “The pressure of achieving justice is a heavy weight, but seeing the look on that mother’s face made it all worthwhile.”

Hestin says he relies on his faith to keep him grounded. “District attorneys can change people’s lives with the stroke of a pen. When wielding power, there is much temptation to abuse it and forget that we are dealing with real lives.” Hestrin’s faith safeguards against this temptation, pointing him toward humility in the midst of the heavy circumstances he faces on a regular basis. “I always pray for wisdom with each case. Seeking God, I strive to remain humble.”

Hestrin doesn’t limit his servant mindset to the legal arena. Trading the courtroom for a classroom several times a week for the last eight years, he teaches a variety of courses at APU. From American Government and Latin American History to Introduction to Criminal Law and Constitutional Criminal Law, Hestrin finds joy in connecting with students. “As a career prosecutor, I spend most of my professional career dealing with evil and its effects; I see humanity at its worst. But when I teach, I see humanity at its best in young, energetic students at the beginning of their careers. This gives me hope.”

In his introductory government classes, Hestrin often encounters students who have never studied government or hold negative views of political studies. “As we read our Constitution and our Founding Fathers’ words, I teach my students to take ownership of their government. Democracy can’t continue if the people choose not to participate.”

As an active employee in local government, Hestrin brings examples from his own experience that illustrate the power and potential of government as well as its shortcomings and limitations. With renewed interest, many students take further classes in government and pursue careers in politics or law, some gaining real-world experience as interns in Hestrin’s Riverside office. Even outside of class time, he keeps his door open for students seeking guidance and advice on political and legal careers.

Whether his students decide to pursue public service careers or not, Hestrin hopes to infuse a spirit of servanthood in his students to carry beyond APU’s campus. “I believe that great leaders have a servant’s heart. In government and in many professional arenas, we don’t talk explicitly about Christianity, but to some extent, it doesn’t matter what we say. It matters how we live.”