An Orange County Superior Court judge held off Friday on ruling on a proposed move to reduce charges against a Newport Beach hand surgeon and his girlfriend accused of sexually assaulting several women as prosecutors revealed they had more changes to make to the criminal complaint.
The hearing often grew heated as Orange County Superior Court Judge Steven Bromberg expressed frustration with both prosecutors and a defense attorney. He accused the prosecutors of a “veiled threat” in their latest court filing.
The politically tinged case against Dr. Grant Robicheaux, 40, and Cerissa Laura Riley, 34, has been troubled from the beginning, when it was filed in the heat of the campaign between then-Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Todd Spitzer, who defeated him in November.
The case became a political football as Spitzer criticized how Rackauckas handled it — and ultimately, when Spitzer sought to dismiss charges, it instead led to Spitzer’s office being removed from the case.
The Attorney General’s Office took over prosecution and asked Bromberg to amend the complaint to include only one sexual assault case despite seven purported victims.
On Friday, Deputy Attorney General Mary Strickland told the judge that her team was now working with one of the alleged victims, whose allegations could remain. She said the matter could be resolved within 30 days.
Meanwhile, attorney Matt Murphy told the judge he is representing a new client in the case, a potential eighth victim.
Strickland assured the judge, “We believe the Janes Does in this case are telling the truth.” But that she did not believe prosecutors could prove their claims beyond a reasonable doubt.
When asked if she knew that dismissing charges without a preliminary hearing was unusual?, she explained that some of the victims “have hit their limit” and did not want to testify.
Bromberg ordered the prosecutors to file a declaration under seal with more details about some of the victims’ reticence.
The judge said he understood that the victims have experienced “two and a half years of yuck,” but did not understand how those of them who would be dismissing charges would remain potential witnesses in the trial, as the Attorney General’s prosecution team apparently stated in its court papers.
Strickland replied they would not in fact be called as witnesses, prompting Bromberg to point out that the matter was not explained that way in her office’s latest brief, noting that it gave him “concern.”
When asked if she was laughing under her mask, Deputy Attorney General Yvette Martinez replied that she was frustrated.
“So is the court,” Bromberg said. “It shows me again that you don’t have a comfort level to handle these kinds of cases.” He asked if she had ever prosecuted a case with uncooperative victims, and she replied she had been head of the sexual assault unit as a Marin County prosecutor, with victims suicidal at the thought of testifying and that when one chooses not to do so, she respects it.
“These women have been drugged through the mud … They were grossly mistreated by the District Attorney of this county,” Martinez said.
The judge said the prosecutors could still proceed with an investigator’s testimony at a preliminary hearing, adding that all of the women have the “same history” with the defendants, “it’s almost like a playbook. And these folks didn’t know each other.”
When Strickland told the judge that her prosecution team had “undertaken an extensive review and analysis” of the case and intended to free it from “the Rackauckas-Spitzer circus,” he commented, “There may be a new circus now.”
Strickland assured him that there has been “no political influence whatsoever” on her prosecution team and denied that the prosecution’s brief was a “veiled threat” to recuse their office if he did not grant the amended complaint.
Bromberg said the normal course of action was to take the case to a preliminary hearing, then amend the complaint, as prosecutors would no longer need his permission to do so. He accused the prosecution of trying to restructure the entire case.
But Strickland replied it would be “unethical” to proceed with a preliminary hearing if they did not think they could prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
The judge also engaged in sharp exchanges with defense attorney Philip Cohen, even ordering him to lower his volume.
After much sparring with attorneys from both sides, Bromberg asked the prosecutors if they intended to recuse their office if he did not grant the motion to amend the complaint.
“We will have to consider all of our options,” Strickland replied.
Under the legal theory that the Attorney General’s Office was “abandoning” a case in which the defendants had not received a preliminary hearing, the judge could hand the case to a special prosecutor to determine if there was enough evidence to warrant a trial.
Defense attorneys filed a motion arguing that Spitzer’s and Attorney General Rob Bonta’s offices reviewed the case and concluded that either all or most charges be dropped. The defense focused on criticism of District Attorney Investigator Jennifer Kearns’ work on the case as initially filed, arguing she was found to have committed “three distinct ethical and professional violations, including, most notably, the intentional omission of material exculpatory evidence from her written reports.”
The defense also argued that the judge could not deny the motion to amend the complaint without finding bias on the part of the Attorney General’s Office. They further argued that Bromberg lacked the authority to appoint a special prosecutor.
Robicheaux and Riley are charged with drugging and sexually assaulting multiple victims they met at social gatherings. Robicheaux, who once appeared on a reality television show called “Online Dating Rituals of the American Male,” is charged in connection with seven alleged victims, while Riley is charged with five. They have both maintained their innocence.
When the charges were announced in 2018, Rackauckas described the defendants as swingers who allegedly took advantage of their good looks to meet women in social settings, drugged them and took them home, where they were sexually assaulted.