An American Civil Liberties Union attorney accused Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer of “baseless scaremongering” for publicly criticizing a defendant’s motion to lower his bail in an Irvine kidnapping case days after an Orange County Superior Court judge ordered the jail population to be cut in half during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ezra Schley, 72, of Huntington Beach, has been in custody since Aug. 30, 2019, on $1 million bail. His attorney, David Swanson, unsuccessfully tried in March when the pandemic began to get his bail lowered and filed another motion on Monday following Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson’s ruling Friday.
The Orange County Board of Supervisors voted in closed session Tuesday to hire outside counsel to assist Sheriff Don Barnes in an appeal of Wilson’s ruling.
Schley and three co-defendants are charged with kidnapping a woman from her Irvine residence for two days to extort money from her husband and mother-in-law, according to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office. A hearing on Schley’s motion for reduced bail is set for Dec. 23.
Spitzer’s office issued a news release saying Schley was attempting to be released on his own recognizance.
“I’m just asking for a bail reduction,” Swanson told City News Service. “I’m not trying to get him OR’d.”
Swanson said his client needs heart surgery.
“He is vulnerable to get COVID and die in jail, so this is about the jail conditions are dangerous and my client needs to get out, so why can’t we reduce his bail a little bit,” Swanson said.
Spitzer claimed that earlier judicial orders to reduce jail population committed new crimes while out of custody at “nearly triple normal recidivism rates,” according to his office. Of those released early, 44% committed another crime and 38% of inmates released on zero bail, according to prosecutors.
“The jail population has been reduced by more than 33% since the beginning of the pandemic in March,” Spitzer said. “There are more than 400 people in custody who have already been convicted or who are awaiting trial for murder or attempted murder. Now the ACLU is fighting to release people who have been convicted or are awaiting trial on felony charges that could send them to prison for the rest of their lives.
“These are hardcore criminals who are going to try everything they can to game the system so they can get out and commit more crimes. The judge’s order is outrageous and I’m not going to allow Orange County and Southern California residents to be put at risk by the release of dangerous and violent criminals back into our communities.”
ACLU attorney Corene Kendrick said Spitzer’s news release was “dangerously misleading,” because she said it “tries to connect a court order to submit a plan to reduce the jail’s population due to COVID, with an accused person’s routine filing asked to be released on his own recognizance.”
Kendrick said such motions to reduce bail are done “all the time, despite DA Spitzer’s ham-handed attempt to scare the public and link it to the Dec. 11 order that Sheriff Barnes create a release plan.”
Kendrick disputed Spitzer’s statistics and said a “comprehensive study” showed that crime “dropped greatly” compared to the same period in 2019 during the zero-bail orders earlier this year.
Kendrick also pointed to the recent outbreak at the jails with 412 inmates infected as of Tuesday, down from 416 reported Monday.
“Unfortunately, given what we know about how the virus spreads, this likely just the beginning unless Sheriff Barnes acts immediately to adhere to the Superior Court order and develop a plan to safely release people and create space for social distancing,” Kendrick said.
“Sheriff Barnes’ response to the order has been even more reckless than DA Spitzer’s baseless scaremongering,” Kendrick said.
“Instead of getting to work on a plan, he is going on TV to attack the court, question its authority, and announce that he will disregard the order. This is the man who tried to claim the jail was the safest place in Orange County just days before this outbreak occurred. By pushing out false conclusions and playing loose with the facts, DA Spitzer and Sheriff Barnes are promising to make an already tragic epidemic become even worse.”