Halim Dhanidina, who spent 14 years as a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, was appointed to a California Superior Court judgeship May 18 by Governor Jerry Brown.
Dhanidina, a founding member of the Association of South Asian Prosecutors, will be the first Muslim American on a California bench, said Brown, announcing the appointments of 17 judges. Dhanidina will take up his new role June 20, although he has not yet been assigned to a court.
“I hope that my appointment serves as an example to others in the Muslim American community, particularly the youth, that our faith and identity need not be an obstacle to our full participation in California's civic institutions,” Dhanidina told India-West. “Similarly, I hope to perform my new responsibilities in a way that demonstrates to society at large that Muslim Americans can serve the community in the pursuit of justice with dignity and honor,” he said.
The Chicago-born, Evanston, Ill.,-raised Dhanidina, whose Gujarati parents Lutaf and Mali emigrated from Tanzania to the U.S., in 1960, said that his 14 years as a deputy district attorney and being in court nearly every day have made him intimately familiar with how a courtroom works, including the rules that govern a trial.
The 39-year-old attorney said his many years in the D.A.’s office have imbued him with a sense of “grace under pressure.”
Dhanidina spent five years prosecuting gang members and three years in the major crimes division, which included several death penalty cases.
“I’ve had some very highly-charged, pressure filled cases,” said Dhanidina, adding, “Gang cases have so many consequences.”
In a career-defining moment, Dhanidina prosecuted the 13-year-old gang killer of a young college student, Nicole Williamson, who was hanging out with friends in front of her home when she was gunned down on Nov. 29, 2003. The shooter, whose name was never revealed, killed Williamson as part of an initiation into a gang; he is currently serving a 12-year sentence with the California Youth Authority and will be released when he turns 25.
Dhanidina received a medal from the organization Justice for Homicide Victims for his prosecution of the Williamson case. He recalled sitting with the young girl’s parents after her death, and watching their Christmas videos.
“They had a video for every single Christmas. There were 19 of them; it was so hard to watch,” he told India-West. Particularly poignant was that Williamson’s father had just returned home on the day of the shooting and was about to go outside to tell his daughter to come in when he heard the gunshots.
“He saw her there with bullet wounds in her head. You can only imagine his devastation, living with the thought that he could have prevented it,” said Dhanidina, himself a father of two young kids, Sonali, 5, and Deven, 18 months, with his wife, Saranya, a social worker.
The driver of the car involved in Williamson’s death was tried as an adult and received multiple life sentences, but Dhanidina said he was unsure if he was satisfied by the outcome of the case.
“There’s no amount of (prison) time that would ever come close to addressing the amount of harm they’ve caused,” he said, adding that he has never experience the elated, “high-five” feeling of television lawyers. “There is some amount of closure for the victims’ families, but no joy or celebrations.”
“The (Williamson) case highlighted for me that the causes of gang violence — poverty, joblessness — are not so simple,” said the Indian American attorney, noting that the shooting occurred in a well-kept, middle-class neighborhood. “There’s a disconnect between the community and societal institutions — the police, the courts — and a breakdown in trust,” he stated.
“The victims of gang crimes are neighbors who live in a perpetual state of fear, yet there’s a cultural stigma attached to cooperating with law enforcement,” explained Dhanidina. “People who see their neighbor getting shot and killed won’t talk to police. No one says anything, which is very frustrating to a prosecutor,” he said, adding, “You want to tell them, ‘this is going to keep on happening unless you cooperate.’”
The Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council said it had advocated for Dhanidina’s appointment for more than a year. “Dhanidina’s appointment is an important step in ensuring that California’s leaders accurately reflect the communities present in our great state,” said Aziza Hasan, MPAC’s Southern California Government Relations director, in a press statement.
Dhanidina earned his law degree at UCLA, where he served as the co-chair of the Asian Pacific Islander Law Students Association. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Pomona College, where he founded the first Muslim Students’ Association, and currently sits on the Board of Governors of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association Los Angeles.