A federal jury found an attorney liable for $250,000 in punitive damages Tuesday for his part in a brawl with an Orange County District Attorney’s Office investigator at the Central Justice Center courthouse in Santa Ana.
The jury, which deliberated for about a day, also awarded now-retired District Attorney Investigator Dillon Alley $11,400 for medical bills related to the fight with attorney James Crawford. But the panel also awarded Crawford $15,233 for his medical bills related to the scrum.
Crawford’s attorney, Jerry Steering, said after the verdicts that he felt “there was so much prejudicial evidence let in on James Crawford” that prevented his client from prevailing in his lawsuit against Alley and the county.
Jurors heard that Crawford had insulted female prosecutors with offensive epithets.
“That was tough for us to overcome,” Steering said.
Steering added that he may bring a motion to have U.S. District Judge David O. Carter overrule the jury and reinstate an excessive force claim against Alley. He said it didn’t make sense that the jury found his client had suffered battery, but was not a victim of excessive force.
Norm Watkins, who represented Alley, noted that “Mr. Steering argued that to the jury,” adding that he and his client “won’t be surprised” if Steering tries to revive the excessive force claim.
Alley “feels finally vindicated” by the verdicts, Watkins said.
“The evidence was pretty clear that Crawford assaulted the officer and the jury saw that,” Watkins said. “We finally got that story told.”
Watkins said there was “no question battery was committed on each” of the combatants since they tossed a paper-clip binder at each other, which triggered a fistfight. But Crawford started the battle “for whatever reason,” he said.
“We’re obviously pleased that the jury did its job and we know it wasn’t easy, but we believe they reached the right result,” Watkins said.
Jurors declined to comment on their verdicts.
There were varying accounts of what happened on March 9, 2016, when Alley and Crawford came to blows.
Steering argued that Alley attacked his client from behind and delivered a beat-down after the two traded insults and tossed the paper-clip binder at each other.
Watkins argued that Crawford “lunged” at Alley and slapped him before the investigator, who was worried about keeping his gun away from the attorney, began punching Crawford repeatedly.
Crawford was summoned to the courthouse that day to provide legal advice to a potential witness to a stabbing at a Lake Forest bar, who was being offered limited immunity against incriminating herself in the attack. A Spanish-language interpreter backed up Crawford’s version of events with pre-recorded testimony, Steering said.
Alley’s job that day was to guard the witness, Berenice Gonzalez, and her “common-law” husband and their 2-year-old child, Steering said.
When Crawford went looking for Gonzalez, Alley said, “Who the (expletive) are you?,” according to Steering, who said that set “the tone for things to come.”
When Crawford explained his task, Alley said, “I’m going to listen in because criminal defense lawyers are sleazy,” according to Steering.
He said Crawford replied, “(Expletive) you. You work with scum in your office, using jailhouse informants to get convictions.”
After Crawford walked away with his client to discuss her testimony, Alley called him a “douchebag,” and later, when Crawford attempted to enter the courtroom, Alley stood in the middle of the hallway “chest puffing in a menacing manner,” Steering told the jury.
Alley continued giving Crawford, who insulted Alley with an expletive, the “evil eye” as the lawyer walked by, according to Steering. The two continued exchanging insults and expletives until Alley flung a binder clip, which struck Crawford in the back of the head, the lawyer said.
Crawford picked up the clip and zinged it back at Alley, prompting more “unpleasantries” before Alley “came up from behind Mr. Crawford, took his right arm and whacked him in the side of the head,” sending the lawyer sprawling into hallway benches, Steering said.
Crawford was left with a scar on his upper lip. Crawford was also treated for a broken nose, tooth and orbital bone, Steering said.
Watkins said the witness, Gonzalez, was “tearful and afraid” because the defendant and his family were nearby in the courthouse hallway as she was considering testifying against him.
Alley and Crawford had never met before, Watkins said.
Steering said he wasn’t able to argue that Gonzalez had a motivation to lie because she needed the government to approve a special visa for crime victims.
There was no conclusive evidence from the courthouse video on who caused the fight. The state Attorney General’s Office declined to press charges in the dispute.
Alley said his thumb was dislocated in the fight.
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