Portrait of a man wearing a gray suit and standing in front of the U.S. and California flags, with his arms crossed and smiling.

Photo: Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis

Serving the Community

Newly elected Sacramento District Attorney Thien Ho ’95 aims to build relationships with all of his constituents.

With more than two decades as a prosecutor under his belt, Thien Ho ’95 is no stranger to putting people behind bars — in fact, he was the lead prosecutor on the case that sent Joseph DeAngelo, the “Golden State Killer,” to prison for life in 2020 for more than a dozen murders and kidnappings. But as Sacramento County’s newest district attorney, he said he hopes to focus on building relationships with the community.

“If you want to develop trust with all communities and with all people, the first place that you start is you have to have a relationship,” Ho said. “And part of having a relationship is the ability to listen.”

He said he has spent the last year and a half campaigning and listening to voters’ concerns about crime, and plans to make their input a regular part of his decision-making through the creation of an advisory council that would include people from various underrepresented communities, as well as business owners.

His outreach was successful, and he won the June 2022 election with 57 percent of votes cast. At his standing-room-only swearing-in this January, supporters said they believed in his vision.

That vision includes reducing gun violence by prosecuting those who illegally use or possess firearms, as well as creating a gun violence intervention program for minors detained at juvenile hall. He said he also plans to combat human trafficking by prosecuting those who are forcing minors into sex work. Another priority of Ho’s is battling homelessness “in a way that is compassionate but accountable as well,” providing help for people in mental health or drug addiction crises.

Brian and Karen Korbs, Sacramento County residents who met Ho during the campaign and subsequently hosted a fundraiser for him, watched from a balcony at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria as Ho took his oath of office. They said they supported him because he wasn’t “soft on crime,” and because he’s held many roles in the district attorney’s office.

“Thien’s done it all in terms of criminal law,” Brian Korbs said.

Ho first worked for the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office as an intern when he was a student at UC Davis. Eventually he returned to the office as a deputy district attorney, working on cases related to gangs, hate crimes, child abuse, sexual assault and more. He was later promoted to oversee the office’s Justice and Community Relations Bureau. He took the place of former District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, who ran unsuccessfully for state attorney general and is now a public safety consultant.

“We get to do the right thing for the right reasons all the time because our job is to find the truth and to render justice.”

Sacramento Police Chief Kathy Lester praised Ho’s “focus on communities and victims,” saying she was looking forward to working with the new district attorney on ways to reduce gun violence.

“I think this is going to be a great partnership,” Lester said.

Lester’s predecessor also praised Ho, especially for his focus on finding ways for people to reenter society after being found guilty of a crime.

“I think he’s going to be great,” said Daniel Hahn, who in 2021 retired as Sacramento’s chief of police. “His heart’s in the right spot. … He’s shown he’s committed to people reclaiming their lives after they’ve done crimes.”

Relating to victims

A job as a lawyer may have seemed an unlikely career path for Ho, who as a child came to the United States as a refugee not knowing a word of English. His family had fled Vietnam in 1976 and spent time in a refugee camp in Malaysia before making their way to San Francisco.

But he said he knew what could happen when justice wasn’t served. When North Vietnam’s communist regime began seizing and redistributing land in the 1950s, officials arrested Ho’s grandmother while his grandfather was away on business, marching her and another business owner’s wife into the hills and executing them both without any kind of trial, Ho said. 

“They left my infant father in the care of his 5-year-old brother, without a judge, without a jury, without a prosecutor,” Ho said.

Ho described the job of a district attorney as being the “gatekeeper to our system of justice,” and said they stand up for victims of crimes.

“We get to do the right thing for the right reasons all the time because our job is to find the truth and to render justice,” he said.

Ho said he knows firsthand what it’s like to live in an impoverished community and be the victim of crime, recalling an attempted home-invasion robbery at his family’s home in San Jose in the early 1990s. His family was able to fend off the would-be robbers but never called the police, fearing retaliation and assuming nothing would be done to help a family of poor immigrants, he said. He’s already working with underrepresented communities in Sacramento to encourage them to react differently to crime. He participated in a recent town hall meeting in South Sacramento that, among other topics, covered the importance of reporting crimes.

“If you don’t report it, it’s as if it didn’t happen,” he said. “We’re here to make sure that you’re safe, and we want to get these dangerous criminals off the streets, but we can’t do that if we don’t know that something happened.”

Ho said equity is important to him, pointing out that people of color are the most frequent victims of violent crime.

“We all deserve to feel safe, not just the person living behind the gated community, driving the $300,000 car, wearing the Rolex watch,” he said. “Safety is a right, and it’s an equity issue for all communities.”

He added that he also hopes his election will serve as inspiration for others from underrepresented communities to pursue careers as prosecutors. He is the first person of color to serve as Sacramento County district attorney, and the fifth Asian American or Pacific Islander currently serving as an elected district attorney in the country. 

“When you look at it on TV, do you ever see an Asian lawyer?” he said. “We need representation because we need perspective.”

Swearing in ceremony showing the back of the judge's head and the new DA facing the judge, smiling, with his hand on a Bible, and the DA's wife standing beside him.

Thien Ho takes his oath of office standing beside his wife, Jenny, whom he met as an undergraduate at UC Davis.

Gregory Urquiaga / UC Davis

Ho said he knew early on that despite encouragement from his parents to become a doctor or engineer, he wanted to become a lawyer.

“I wasn’t good with math or science, so that wasn’t my career path,” he said. “I was good at writing, and I was good at talking.”

He furthered those skills at UC Davis, where he studied political science and kept his sights trained on finding a way into the courtroom.

Looking back at his time at UC Davis, he recalled watching outdoor movies, exploring the “close-knit community” that extended into the city of Davis, and experiencing the smells of the campus cows on a warm fall afternoon.

Ho lived in the Tercero Residence Halls, where he met the woman who would eventually become his wife, Jenny Ho ’97.

“He always knew he wanted to be a lawyer,” Jenny Ho said.

After graduating, Ho continued on to McGeorge School of Law, where he participated on the mock trial team and still serves as an adjunct professor of trial advocacy.

A focus on leadership

As Ho rose through the ranks of the district attorney’s office, he began to think his unique perspective could bring something to the office’s top post, he said.

His colleagues, too, saw him as uniquely skilled.

Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Carlton Davis, who previously worked as a prosecutor alongside Ho, spoke at Ho’s swearing-in ceremony and recalled wishing he’d had a way to take notes when he watched Ho argue a case in court.

“He used words in a way I’d never heard words used before,” Davis told the crowd in January. “I knew I’d just seen one of the best trial attorneys Sacramento County had to offer.”

Chris Ore, a supervising deputy district attorney with Sacramento County, described Ho as “wicked smart.”

“He and I have dealt with very similar issues; he has ideas and knows where to go quickly,” Ore said. “His mind is always thinking three steps ahead.”

Ore said Ho would “bring a voice for victims” to the office, as well as a sense of compassion.

“Justice is more than just getting convictions,” he said. “It’s making sure the right thing happens.”