Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and one of his top assistants have ripped into a Harvard Law School project that deemed his office one of the worst in the state in terms of prosecutorial misconduct.
Assistant District Attorney Ebrahim Baytieh, who was named state prosecutor of the year in 2012, was among three prosecutors who conducted an in- depth review of the data cited in a report released at the end of July by the Fair Punishment Project.
The report concluded that Orange County had the worst rating per capita in the state for the number of reversals of convictions on appeal, and that the reversal rating overall was the second-worst in the state. The study ranked Rackauckas’ office third in the state due to reversals stemming from prosecutorial misconduct and fifth worst per capita.
The study concluded the Orange County D.A. had seven convictions overturned from 2010 to 2015 due to prosecutorial misconduct and 24 overall findings of prosecutorial misconduct.
Rackauckas’ office sought the “raw data” from the project to check the statistics and said it found multiple errors. The Fair Punishment Project admitted the errors and has updated its website to reflect new rankings for Orange County.
“The misconduct and reversal rankings have been updated to reflect this new information, although they are not substantially different from before,” according to a statement on the FPP’s website.
“For example, Orange County ranked third out of 58 counties for total number of misconduct findings, second for total number of reversals, fifth for misconduct based on a modified per capita ranking and first for reversals based on a modified per capita ranking,” the FPP statement says. “After the adjustments, Orange County now ranks second for total number of misconduct findings and second for total number of reversals. It now ranks fourth for misconduct and fourth for reversals out of 58 counties based on a modified per capita ranking.”
Baytieh said the project’s authors still have their numbers wrong.
“Their extremely small percentage is 71 percent,” Baytieh said. “And even by their own analysis, it’s 43 percent wrong.”
Baytieh argued that during the years studied, there were 16 findings of prosecutorial misconduct, but two reversals. In most of the cases, Baytieh said, the reversals were due to a judge’s error.
In two cases, the reversals were due to legal issues involving attorneys from Orange County cities, and not the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, he said.
Baytieh argued that his office’s analysis puts Orange County as second best in the state, not worst.
“You’ve got to be intellectually honest and they were not,” Baytieh said of the Fair Punishment Project.
The findings of misconduct, he further argued, stemmed from errors made during trials, such as making improper statements during closing arguments. None of the misconduct claims stemmed from withholding evidence or willfully cheating to convict innocent defendants, Baytieh said.
When prosecutors learned of the project’s study, they sought to review the data, not to set out to disprove it, but to figure out where they may be making mistakes and then to take efforts to correct them, Baytieh said.
The study’s authors “targeted” Orange County because of the so-called jailhouse “snitch scandal” which has rocked Rackauckas’ office, with multiple allegations of cheating among prosecutors and police. Scott Dekraai, the worst mass killer in the county’s history, had the death penalty removed as an option in his case because of the scandal, and earlier the same judge booted Rackauckas’ office from the case.
Rackauckas said the project’s report proved “startling” to him. But he said further review showed “they are completely wrong.”
A message left with the Fair Punishment Project was not immediately returned.
Rackauckas, without naming his chief opponent in next year’s election — Orange County Superivsor Todd Spitzer — demanded a “retraction” for critical remarks Spitzer made when the study was released.
Spitzer, however, criticized Rackauckas outside of his office following the news conference.
“He’s throwing himself his own life preserver,” Spitzer told City News Service. “This was a political stunt today.”
Spitzer noted that the Orange County Grand Jury in its report on the snitch scandal referred to Rackauckas’ office as a “lazy law firm,” and that a committee formed by Rackauckas to look into the corruption allegations referred to his office as a “rudderless ship.”
“He’s drowning in corruption,” Spitzer said.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal cited institutionalized corruption in its ruling upholding the booting of Rackauckas’ office from the Dekraai case. Dekraai’s attorneys successfully argued their client could not receive a fair trial due to the use of a jailhouse informant that they said was done in a way that violated his constitutional rights.
The Dekraai litigation showed multiple examples of the misuse of informants that violated the rights of defendants, most of whom were caught up in crackdowns on jailhouse violence in an internal struggle among the leadership of the Mexican Mafia.
According to Dekraai’s attorney, 16 defendants have either won new trials or received reduced punishments as a result of their case. One accused murderer accepted a plea deal down to manslaughter and another convicted murderer was sentenced to time served and released from custody.
Rackauckas said the claims of prosecutorial misconduct in those cases were “highly exaggerated.” He also disputed the appellate ruling, saying the claim of institutionalized corruption was “completely untrue.”
–City News Service
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