A motion to disqualify an Orange County Superior Court judge overseeing the case against a Newport Beach hand surgeon and his girlfriend, who are charged with drugging and raping several women, has been denied.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Samantha Jessner, who was appointed to rule on the motion to disqualify Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregory Jones, issued her decision July 24, but it was put in the mail and officials locally did not receive it until this week.
Defense attorneys for Dr. Grant Robicheaux and Cerissa Laura Riley moved to disqualify Jones based on allegations that the judge had an improper private meeting with attorney Matt Murphy, a former Orange County senior deputy district attorney who represents four alleged victims in the case.
The meeting took place a day before prosecutors tried to have the case dismissed — they said there wasn’t enough evidence to take it to trial — but Jones asked for more evidence and months later denied the motion.
Defense attorneys have appealed that ruling and are awaiting a decision. If that appeal is denied, Jones will consider a motion to have the case reassigned from Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer’s office to the state Attorney General, a move Spitzer does not oppose.
Jessner ruled that the defense waited too long to move to disqualify the judge and that the circumstances of the hearing were not enough to bump Jones from the case.
Defense attorneys had pointed to a declaration from a top prosecutor that Murphy told officials in the DA’s office that Jones “implored” him to be at the Feb. 7 hearing on the motion to dismiss charges.
“An ex parte communication with counsel for one of the parties, without more, does not disqualify a judge,” Jessner said of the private meeting between Jones and Murphy. A judge has the right to hold such a meeting for the purposes of “scheduling, administrative purposes, or emergencies that do not deal with substantive matters,” Jessner added.
Jones earlier said in court papers he wanted to ask Murphy if there would be victim impact statements at the hearing because it could make it lengthy and he would have to ask another judge to take over his other cases for that day.
The defense also raised issues about the “rivalry” between Spitzer and Tony Rackauckas, who Spitzer unseated in November 2018. Defense attorneys alleged that Murphy is allied with Rackauckas, but Jessner said in her ruling that the “politics of this case are insufficient to disqualify a judge.”
Jessner added that the defense attorneys “have not alleged sufficient facts to establish Judge Jones cannot be impartial based on an appearance of bias resulting from the (private) hearing with Mr. Murphy. Judge Jones denies being biased or prejudiced, states he has no personal interest and can act fairly and impartially, and can and will provide a fair and even-handed application of the law in this case.”
Last week, defense attorneys raised more issues of impropriety and demanded an evidentiary hearing based on a “sizzle reel” pitch for a reality TV show about Orange County prosecutors during Rackauckas’ time in office. The reel prominently focused on Murphy and an accompanying PowerPoint presentation featured the Robicheaux and Riley case.
Spitzer said he had no interest in moving forward with the show, but he sent the reel to several area defense attorneys whose clients were featured in it as part of what he characterized as his obligation to follow the Brady law that governs exchange of evidence with defense attorneys.
Rackauckas said he never pitched a show to any network and said it was common for him to cooperate with news organizations that wanted interviews to showcase his prosecutors. He said there was never any discussion of a contract or any exchange of money involved.
Murphy responded in a motion filed Sunday that his then-bosses asked him to participate in the making of the sizzle reel.
“In 2018, the previous OCDA administration asked me to participate in a short interview where I described what it was like to be a prosecutor,” he said. “I was told they may also have general questions concerning some of my previously adjudicated cases but nothing that would require any sort of preparation. I did not know who the production company was working for, and only recently learned it was produced for Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.”
Murphy, who took a job as a legal consultant for Disney-owned ABC News when he retired from the DA’s office, is featured surfing in the video as he describes it as an activity that helps him unwind.
“I was never asked to `star’ in any future television program, and I never discussed the video with Tony Rackauckas,” Murphy wrote. “I had nothing to do with the planning, concept, or writing of the show.”
Murphy went on to accuse Spitzer of putting the video into the hands of defense attorneys in the hopes it would be leaked to reporters to embarrass him. He said some insiders in the DA’s office have told him that Spitzer is “angry about my advocacy on behalf of the victims in this case,” and that he has “told various members of his staff that I am `out of control’ and `need to be reigned in.”’
Murphy accused Spitzer of using his office’s resources to “investigate me and my background and has given his staff express orders to produce material he can use against me.”
He also accused Spitzer and his top deputy Shawn Nelson of hatching a plan to dig up dirt they could use to report Murphy to the State Bar. Murphy further alleged that Spitzer has “assembled a team of attorneys to review some (or all) of the many cases I prosecuted as a deputy district attorney, and they have been given instructions to look through the files and `find something.”’
Spitzer’s office declined to respond.