The victim wants justice.
Recently, the man, a work crew supervisor, was threatened with a knife by one of his employees. No blood was drawn; still, the victim wants the defendant to plead guilty and be sentenced to probation and anger management classes. As the man explains his concerns, Cesar Vega, an assistant district attorney in the Worcester County District Attorney’s Office, listens intently. He then tells the victim that, should the defendant plead guilty to assault with a dangerous weapon—a felony—it could trigger “an immigration consequence.” Because the victim was not injured, Vega does not feel that the punishment—in this case, possible deportation—fits the crime.
“I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to put [the defendant] in that situation so everyone can have a free-for-all with him. But before I make any offer, before I do anything in court, I absolutely need your input,” Vega tells the victim. “My job is to make sure I hear from everyone involved, including the defendant. I have to take everything into account.” As an alternative to the plea bargain, Vega suggests pretrial probation, which allows the court to place a defendant on probation without an admission of guilt. That way, the defendant’s immigration status would not be jeopardized.
Though the victim is, at first, reticent regarding the compromise proposal, Vega eventually convinces him that this is the best resolution. Considering the interests of the defendant as well as the victim may seem more like the role of a defense attorney than a prosecutor. Yet Vega has a unique understanding of how a troubled life, without the rare gift of a second chance,can become forever unmoored. A dozen years ago, before he graduated from Suffolk Law, Vega was a high school dropout and teenage father killing time with the wrong people in the wrong places. He was never a gang member, but he hung out with close friends who were affiliated. As a juvenile, he was once arrested for a minor offense, but he knows it could have precipitated a downward spiral for a young man living a marginal life.
Yet through his own stubborn ambition to build a better life for his son—and through the belief of others, such as Gail Ellis, Suffolk Law’s dean of admissions—Vega saved himself from society’s abyss. “I was impressed by the fact that he just didn’t give up,” Ellis says. “Some people would have looked at his situation in high school and said, ‘Here’s one more kid who’s going to wind up at a dead end.’ And yet, there’s something very special about him. He had that quality, that determination. It was so evident that he just had what we called ‘a fire in the belly.’”
Even now, when Vega enters a courtroom, he recognizes that, had things turned out differently, he could have been a defendant instead of a prosecutor. “People take different paths, but it’s not my place to judge them,” he says. “It’s about making the most of an opportunity. If they had the education and privilege I’ve had—and I do now see myself as privileged—they could be great doctors, attorneys, or anything else they wanted to be.”
The Five-Year Question
Vega, 29, has been an assistant district attorney in Worcester, a city in central Massachusetts, since 2010. For the most part, the crimes he prosecutes, if they make it to trial at all, are relatively minor—disorderly conduct, assault and battery, larceny, and operating under the influence. Occasionally, while sitting in the courtroom waiting for one of his cases to be called, Vega, who grew up in Worcester, recognizes a friend or former classmate as a defendant. “Most of my friends from high school I still keep in touch with; a lot of them have had run-ins with the law and some still do, so I see people I know,” he says. “I just look and say, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ and that’s it. With others, if there was more of a friendship, I do the courteous thing and shake their hand. I don’t say anything about the case. In the past I’ve even gotten a case with a name I recognized, so I’ll double-check the booking photo and the criminal record, and if I confirm that it’s someone I know, I have to pass it off to someone else.”
To a certain extent, Vega seemed destined to be an attorney. Both his mother and father were lawyers in their native Peru where Vega was born and lived until age 10. After years of experiencing financial hardships while they juggled law school and raising Vega and his three siblings, Vega’s parents vastly improved their situation when his father became an officer in the navy. Still, his mother wanted to move to America. “My mom and dad argued about that all the time,” Vega says. “My dad said, ‘We’re finally at a place where [the kids] can go to school for free at elite schools in Peru,’ because he was in the armed forces, so they offered him the best. He had an elite profession, with good prospects, but my mom said, ‘I have some family in the U.S., and I think that would be the better choice.’”
Life in America was nothing like what Vega envisioned based on sugarcoated situation comedies like Full House. His parents didn’t speak English and could no longer practice law unless they attended law school here, something they could not afford. Instead, they were reduced to low-wage jobs, often more than one; his mother was a babysitter, and his father had a maintenance job in Sears and delivered pizza. The family’s quality of living sank, and that transition was especially difficult for Vega’s father. “For him to come here and leave everything put a strain on their relationship,” Vega says. Eventually, they divorced, and his father returned to Peru. With his mother working, Vega began to fill his time in the streets. Though smart, he didn’t like the structure of school and became an indifferent student. His friends formed a neighborhood gang, though Vega was never an official member. (One of those friends was murdered when Vega was a first-year law student.) He was arrestedand charged with malicious destruction of property for starting a bonfire. Later, he left home, moved in with a friend, and his girlfriend got pregnant. “We didn't really know enough to discuss the financial burdens of raising a child, nor did we carefully plan anything. We just accepted the fact we were having a baby and knew, basically, we had to find work and provide,” he says.
“At first, I suppose, it was just an obligation that I had to be there and help raise my child. And I don't think I felt any excitement until my son was actually born. I think the whole process was so impressive to witness first-hand that I became emotional and felt a profound connection to my son, unlike anything I had or have experienced since." At 17, Vega became a father with the birth of their son, Jovann, and dropped out of school to help support the child. “At the time, my goals were to get a fulltime job as a mechanic or whatever, support my family, and get an apartment in subsidized housing.”
By 19, he had a minimum-wage job at UPS, but, by his own admission, he “wasn’t doing much.” Then, he had an epiphany while hanging out in a house with friends. “Kids were running around with no supervision; no one even knew who owned the house. I just looked around and thought, ‘This isn’t where I’d like to be in five years,’” Vega says. “Something just said to me that this wasn’t a place where I wanted my kid to grow up.”
Beyond the Numbers
Vega got his GED and tried to enlist in the Navy but was rejected. A recruiter told him he would be accepted with 12 community college credits, so he enrolled at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester to study criminal justice. “When I took constitutional law and was reading all these opinions, I just loved learning that,” he says. “I loved the policymaking, the interpretation of the law, arguing about the law, and the legal issues. I loved the intellectual aspect of it. That’s when I [decided I] wanted to go to law school.” Instead of the military, he transferred to Clark University as a prelaw major and worked two jobs while also caring for his son and playing on the school’s soccer team. Entering his senior year, he had passable grades and LSAT scores but fell short of what he would need for law school. Vega applied to—and was rejectedby—every law school in Massachusetts, including Suffolk. Still, Mark Miller, one of Vega’s Clark professors and the university’s prelaw adviser, saw his student’s potential and called Ellis at Suffolk to share Vega’s story and encourage her to reconsider.
“Every year, I have students like Cesar [who] don’t fit the typical mold but have many other indications that they will succeed and do well in law school,” Ellis says. “When we’re looking for students for the Law School, we look beyond the numbers. We look at their work ethic, their motivation, and how committed they are to the things that are important in their life, and from a young age, Cesar was so committed to everything in his life, it was an easy decision.” Ellis called Vega and invited him to Suffolk for an interview. “Even though I read thousands of applications every year, there aren’t that many that have the kind of passion that he had,” Ellis recalls. “Because of that, I knew when I met him I would be very, very impressed, which I was. He came to Suffolk and he never let me down.”
Vega moved from Worcester to Cambridge, but he managed to see his son “religiously” every weekend despite his academic obligations, he says. “I told him I was going to law school and he understood. We talked about it.” Vega, who shares custody of Jovann, now 12, with the boy’s mother, tries to instill in his son lessons that will help him steer clear of the rocky path his father traveled. When Jovann asks his father about legal terms or high-profile cases, Vega uses it as an opportunity to explain to his son the Constitution and his own rights. “My experience[s] with police officers in this area [weren’t] initially pleasant, so as he’s growing up, I try to prepare him and tell him [should he have an encounter with police] to keep his cool and say two phrases: ‘I want my lawyer,’ and ‘I want my parents.’”
For his first year at Suffolk, Vega enrolled in the evening program. He then switched to a day schedule for his second year so he wouldn’t need an extra year. He also took out loans so that the demands of a job wouldn’t undermine his attention to his studies.
One of his favorite classes was contracts, taught by Professor Carter G. Bishop. “I felt a connection with him. He was funny in the classroom and he worked hard to get you involved, because contracts could be the most boring and difficult subject,” Vega says. “He was effective, but he made it entertaining.”
During his Suffolk years, Vega applied unsuccessfully to be a law clerk for federal magistrate Timothy S. Hillman JD ’73, then a federal magistrate and an adjunct professor at Clark. Vega, who had taken one of Hillman’s classes, offered to work for the judge for free as a full-time judicial intern just to gain legal experience. Hillman, recently confirmed by the U.S. Senate as a U.S District Court Judge in Worcester, was so impressed by Vega that he personally recommended his former student to Worcester District Attorney Joseph Early for Vega’s current position as assistant district attorney. (Vega’s mother alsonow works at the courthouse as a social worker in the Department of Children and Families.)
Vega brings “his skills and interest in his community to the job,” Early says. “He cares about the people he grew up with, and he cares about the community he grew up in.” He recalls Vega’s handling of a case involving a woman assaulted in a nightclub. Even after a potential plea agreement fell apart, Vega tried the case and won a conviction. “Cesar helped the victimthrough the difficult judicial process, empowering her and helping her face her attacker,” Early says. “Cesar did everything a good D.A. is supposed to do and then some.”
Someday, Vega would like to argue a case before the Supreme Court; for him, there is no greater achievement as an attorney. In the meantime, he teaches law as an adjunct professor at Quinsigamond Community College, and he spends as much time as he can with Worcester’s youth. Though he now lives 30 minutes north in Leominster, Massachusetts, Vega still feels a deep connection to this community of young people, where the temptations that once lured him are more prevalent than ever. When he speaks, he never hesitates to share with them the story of the boy he was, and the man he has become.“
First, I tell them what I do, but I tell them I haven’t always been like this,” Vega says. “I tell them about growing up here and what happened to me: I hung out with people who weren’t up to good and I got caught up in that. I had a child [at a young age]. I give them the whole situation, [and] then [I] get that question [about how he has succeeded] after dropping out, because everyone tells them that after dropping out they’re doomed, and that’s not the case.
“I do it for selfish reasons,” he continues. “I want more people like me in school, and in law school,” he says. “I tell them what I would have told myself when I was a kid—open up your mind. There’s a lot more out there to learn. There’s so much more out there than what you think and what you see based on your surroundings now.”
Originally appeared in Fall 2012 issue of Suffolk Alumni Magazine.