An Orange County Superior Court judge Thursday denied a motion to recuse the Orange County District Attorney’s Office from parole violation hearings for several sex offenders, saying defense attorneys failed to show District Attorney Todd Spitzer’s comments on the cases prevented the defendants from fair hearings.
The Public Defender’s Office filed the motion to recuse Spitzer’s office May 19 after the county’s top prosecutor criticized Orange County Court Commissioner Joe Dane’s earlier-than-usual release of sex offenders who violated terms of their parole to keep the jail population at a certain level during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The motion was filed on behalf of five men accused of parole violations. They were released on time served, angering Spitzer, who argued they had to serve legally required six-month terms behind bars.
Spitzer argued the jails had plenty of room for eight registered sex offenders accused of parole violations.
Spitzer testified last Friday in an evidentiary hearing, denying allegations that he meant to intimidate any judges when he criticized Dane.
“The likelihood that the defendants will not receive a fair trial must be real, not merely apparent, and must ride to the level of a likelihood of unfairness has not been established,” Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett said in his ruling.
“The evidence adduced at the evidentiary hearing established that the issue of the perceived `light’ or `inappropriate’ sentences that these defendants received was brought to the attention of Mr. Spitzer by his deputies, and not the reverse,” Prickett wrote.
“Mr. Spitzer responded to their concerns. However, nothing in the testimony of the assistant district attorney responsible for supervising these parole violations, Mr. (Jess) Rodriguez, supports a `likelihood of unfairness.’ ”
Prickett said Spitzer’s criticisms of Public Defender Sharon Petrosino, who retired Wednesday, “were, at best, only inferentially related to these defendants. And during his testimony, Mr. Spitzer related only admiration for the professional job that Ms. Petrosino does in representing her clients and noted that, as a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, he had voted to approve their budget numerous times.”
Prickett added that Spitzer “is aware that personal attacks on opposing counsel are improper and irrelevant to the issues.”
Assistant Public Defender Sara Ross said, “We were disappointed in the ruling, but we were gratified to see the court give Mr. Spitzer a well-deserved reminder that personal attacks on opposing counsel are improper and irrelevant to the issues. The statements that Mr. Spitzer made about Commissioner Dane were incredibly inappropriate and unwarranted, and we hope that he will refrain from engaging in such conduct in the future.”
Spitzer said, “As district attorney, I have an obligation to keep our community safe. I was deeply troubled when I was informed by my prosecutors in April that a court commissioner refused to follow the law in releasing seven dangerous sex offenders back into the community before they served their mandatory 180-day sentences for tampering with or cutting off their GPS monitors.
“This frivolous motion by the Public Defender’s Office is nothing more than an intimidation tactic to prevent me from keeping the public safe. As I stated under oath on the witness stand when asked by a deputy public defender do I think they keep the public safe, the Public Defender’s Office does a fantastic job advocating for its clients, but they don’t do anything to keep the public safe. That is our job as prosecutors, and we will continue to do our job.”
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