Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer Thursday brushed off a move by defense attorneys to have his office recused from parole violation hearings for several sex offenders whose release from custody during the COVID-19 pandemic Spitzer criticized.
The Orange County Public Defender’s Office is arguing that several of the defendants cannot get a fair hearing from Spitzer and his prosecutors because Spitzer used their cases to criticize Orange County Superior Court Commissioner Joe Dane for ruling they could get less than the minimum six months for a parole violation because of orders to reduce the jail population during the pandemic.
At issue are news releases last month from Spitzer’s office warning the public about the release of seven sex offenders following parole violations such as taking off or failing to charge the battery on their court-ordered GPS devices.
Spitzer said there was no reason to dole out lesser-than-minimum sentences of six months because the number of inmates infected with COVID-19 does not necessitate a release of more inmates.
However, the Public Defender’s Office argued in court papers that Spitzer’s criticism of Dane has amounted to a chilling effect on local judges and has created a conflict of interest for his entire office.
“Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer created a grave conflict of interest in (Mario Sandoval’s) case because he chose to use defendant’s parole violation sentence and his subsequent re-arrest as a platform to advance his own personal and political views,” Assistant Public Defender Sara Ross wrote in a motion seeking his office’s recusal from the case.
“Mr. Spitzer has revealed these views with near-perfect clarity through a series of incendiary public remarks regarding defendant, the commissioner who sentenced him, and the Public Defender’s Office that represents him.”
Ross added that Spitzer’s “comments are not just intended to intimidate a commissioner in Orange County. In fact, the insult to Commissioner Dane’s integrity and the harm to his professional reputation were just collateral damage. Indeed, these comments were to place all judges in Orange County on notice of the price they will pay if they make a decision with which Mr. Spitzer later disagrees.”
Spitzer told City News Service that recusal of his office would amount to prior restraint against his First Amendment rights.
“My comments that they’re complaining about were post admissions — after the defendant admitted their guilt on the probation violations,” Spitzer said.
“All of my comments were about an already adjudicated case, not about pending cases. These guys went into court and admitted they were in violation of parole and then Dane didn’t give them the 180 days.”
Spitzer added his publicity about the cases involving the early release of the sex offenders was motivated by, “my utter dismay that a convicted predator, who was on parole and monitored by GPS 24/7 could walk out of jail in 10 days… when the statute requires 180 days.”
Spitzer said, “I don’t lose my First Amendment rights as a citizen just because I’m the district attorney.”
Spitzer said the law gives him the authority to warn the public about a dangerous defendant.
Spitzer noted that convicted serial killer Steven Dean Gordon and his co-defendant Franc Cano, who is awaiting trial, were charged with cutting off their GPS devices before going on a killing spree of four prostitutes.
Ross’ “argument is that because of my prior comments I can’t be fair… Talk about prior restraint. How was I supposed to know six or seven of these guys would wind up back in custody again in two weeks. It’s basically prior restraint that you can never comment about a sentence or an outcome in an adjudicated case because the person might come back into the system. That could not be the law.”
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