A prominent Orange County defense attorney is lashing out at an appellate court ruling that criticized him, another local attorney and the state Bar for their response to a serial rapist’s attempts to appeal his convictions.
The ruling penned by Associate Justice William W. Bedsworth of Division Three of the Fourth District Court of Appeal primarily scolds defense attorney Michael Molfetta, who was sued by the serial rapist, Sekayi Rudo White. The ruling upholds a lower court ruling finding in favor of Molfetta.
White, now 43, represented himself in a civil lawsuit against Molfetta, who handled the defendant’s motion for new trial and represented him at sentencing in June 2012, when he was handed a term of 112 years to life in prison for raping five women and molesting a sixth victim.
White’s appeals failed, so he sought relief in federal court with a habeas petition. That’s when he asked Molfetta to send him the case file with evidence.
“Molfetta received White’s letters, but believed he was prohibited from producing the file because it included protected materials,” Bedsworth wrote. “This was a reasonable concern. But his response to it was not. Instead of explaining the problem directly to his former client and producing the unprotected parts of the file, Molfetta effectively ignored the letters.”
When Molfetta was ordered to do so by an Orange County Superior Court judge, “he was two years late” because White missed a legal deadline to file an appeal in federal court, Bedsworth wrote.
“His petition in the state court was also denied. He sued to recoup the money he spent reconstructing the file, later asking for emotional distress damages. He got neither,” Bedsworth wrote.
Bedsworth noted that White failed to make a case for emotional distress and he also could not show how Molfetta’s actions would have helped him get his convictions overturned.
“We cannot condone such laxity on the part of a lawyer toward his client,” Bedsworth wrote. But absent a miscarriage of justice (of which we have no evidence here) our moral and professional assessments, however deeply felt, cannot create a cause of action in tort.”
Bedsworth said the appellate panel agreed with Orange County Superior Court Martha Gooding that “White failed to adequately plead and prove injury from Molfetta’s wrongful behavior. We therefore affirm its judgment in Molfetta’s favor, but we publish in the hope the embarrassment we feel about the case can lead to improvement.”
In the ruling, Bedsworth also found fault with defense attorney Kenneth Reed, in what he characterized was a delay in sending the file to White after White sued and Reed was hired to represent Molfetta.
Bedsworth also criticized the State Bar for taking six months to respond to a letter from White about the issue. The State Bar said it would require Molfetta to contact White within 10 days, but there was no evidence he did so, according to Bedsworth.
“This ball got dropped a lot,” Bedsworth wrote.
Molfetta said Bedsworth’s criticism was unfair.
“I was not the trial lawyer, nor was I the prosecutor,” he told City News Service. “And he never made any attempts to get the file from them.”
Molfetta said he was conflicted about what to do when his client requested the material, for ethical and legal reasons.
“I thought it was incumbent on me to respect the sensitive nature of the file as is done in every case like this,” Molfetta said. “I was waiting for someone to order me to turn it over.”
Molfetta said he had reservations about turning over personal information about rape victims to their attacker such as photos of the victims during rape kit exams.
“I didn’t feel like I should turn that over to a guy sitting in prison,” he said. “Any notion that I ignored a client is wrong.”
Molfetta said he told White he would not turn over the evidence, but he said he would discuss the issue with the defendant’s father.
“I said I can talk to your dad and he said OK,” Molfetta said.
White’s father called Molfetta, who told him he needed a court order to turn over the evidence.
“Just because they’re not communicating, how am I supposed to know that,” Molfetta said. “What’s most important is I offered part of the file and (White) said, no, we want it all and that’s where the whole thing was. I said, `Go get it from the court. You’re not going to get it from me.”’
White also demanded investigators’ notes, which Molfetta said he never received from the defendant’s trial attorney, Fred McBride.
“I’m not embarrassed because I feel like I did the right thing,” Molfetta said. “When you’re a trial lawyer and in the game, in the trenches, you make calls. You’ve got to make a lot of calls that are difficult … I don’t think I deserve what I got. To publish this to embarrass me, you’re crossing the line and getting into an area that is more vindictive than educational and I guess he (Bedsworth) doesn’t like me so I’ll knock him off my Christmas card list.”
Molfetta said White “wasn’t harmed by anything I did. None of his legal interests were.”
Bedsworth agreed on that point, noting that White failed to file a timely appeal in federal court.
“Here, almost three years after receiving his file back, White had still not filed his federal habeas petition,” Bedsworth wrote. “Neither we nor the trial court can speculate as to what the outcome of his federal habeas petition would have been had Molfetta timely returned the file because White did not expeditiously pursue the petition. Indeed, our research indicates White did not constructively file a federal habeas petition until approximately April 2020.”
White’s petition in federal court was denied.
Even if White were given a break due to the delays in getting his case file, he still would have missed the federal appeal deadline by nine weeks, according to Bedsworth.
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