A judge Tuesday told a deputy city attorney that his office has until early next month to assign a lawyer to represent the city in a retaliation suit brought by a Los Angeles Police Department criminalist, or face possible sanctions putting limits on what defense can be presented.
Jennifer Francis sued the city in Los Angeles Superior Court in October 2013, alleging Detective Cliff Sheppard of the Robbery-Homicide Division’s cold case unit ignored the results of DNA tests that she performed as a criminalist in the LAPD’s Scientific Investigation Division. Those results gained importance years later when another detective determined that then-LAPD Detective Stephanie Lazarus killed romantic rival Sherri Rasmussen.
Francis alleges that Sheppard knew Lazarus had ties to the victim, but did not want to consider her a suspect. Francis also claims she was told by supervisors beginning in 2005 to ignore possible evidence implicating Lazarus in Rasmussen’s slaying.
“I don’t care who they assign, whether it be a brand-new lawyer or Mr. (City Attorney Mike) Feuer,” Judge Holly Fujie told Deputy City Attorney Dennis Kong. She then qualified her statement and said she wanted a skilled lawyer assigned by Oct. 2.
“I’m not blaming you, I am blaming your office,” Fujie said “I’m really finding this irresponsible.”
The judge said she will put restrictions on the defense the city can mount against Francis if her deadline is not met. She set another hearing for Oct. 17.
Kong responded that an unexpected medical leave taken by the lawyer assigned to the case, Deputy City Attorney John Anthony III, made it necessary to begin a search for another attorney in the office with the skills to handle the complex case.
“We’re trying to hastily find someone,” Kong said.
The judge replied that the actions of Kong’s office were “not hastily enough for this court.”
Francis’ attorneys, Courtney McNicholas and John Taylor, contended the City Attorney’s Office is taking advantage of the situation to avoid complying with court orders Fujie made earlier this month directing them to turn over important documents and make individuals available for depositions.
“You speak, they ignore you,” McNicholas said.
McNicholas said the city’s strategy is “delay, delay, delay.”
“Here we are still being delayed,” said McNicholas, adding that a private law firm such as hers would have been already severely punished by now for similar conduct.
McNicholas said some of the things the city has allegedly failed to do are as simple as filling out a chart.
“All you have to do is check boxes,” McNicholas said. “How difficult is that?”
Taylor said after the hearing that the City Attorney’s Office has been afforded too many “bites at the apple” and should have to comply with Fujie’s earlier orders.
Rasmussen was found beaten and shot in February 1986 in the Van Nuys townhouse she shared with her husband, whom Lazarus had dated. Lazarus was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced in May 2012 to 27 years to life in prison.