Wednesday, April 13, 2005
County Supervisors Decline to Vote on Payment for Ipsen Defense
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
The county Board of Supervisors yesterday declined to vote on whether the county should pay defense costs for Deputy District Attorney Steven Ipsen, who faces State Bar discipline proceedings after the California Supreme Court said he violated constitutional due process rights by telling separate juries in his first capital murder case that two defendants delivered the fatal blow.
District Attorney Steve Cooley had asked the board to provide legal counsel for Ipsen before the State Bar Court. The board did not vote on the request but referred the issue back to the district attorney’s office for further review.
“My review reveals no indication that the deputy district attorney acted with malice,” Cooley wrote in a March 31 memorandum to the board. “Rather, it appears that the deputy district attorney acted in apparent good faith and in the apparent interests of the people of the state of California and the county of Los Angeles.”
Ipsen, who is president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys and a member of the State Bar Board of Governors, told the MetNews yesterday that he could not comment on the supervisors’ action because he has not been involved in Cooley’s interactions with the board on his behalf.
Defendant Peter Sakarias’ attorney, Cliff Gardner, said the prosecutor should be reprimanded by the State Bar. “It’s a little bit like Watergate. ... I think it was the cover-up that got him,” Gardner said.
Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar, writing for a 6-1 majority in In re Sakarias (2005) 35 Cal.4th 140, said that Ipsen “violated [Sakarias’] due process rights by intentionally and without good faith justification arguing inconsistent and irreconcilable factual theories in the two trials, attributing to [Sakarias and co-defendant Tauno Waidla] in turn culpable acts that could have been committed by only one person.”
Sakarias and Waidla, natives of Estonia, were sentenced to death for the 1988 slaying of a 52-year-old North Hollywood woman. The victim, Viivi Piirisild, was a fellow Estonian immigrant who had befriended the two men after they came to the United States as defectors from the Soviet Army, but who had had a failing out with them.
The high court accepted the conclusion of its appointed factfinder—then-Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Thomas Willhite Jr., since elevated to this district’s Court of Appeal—that Ipsen acted deliberately when he argued that Sakarias struck the victim three times with a hatchet, even though he had previously argued that Waidla inflicted the same three blows.
The trials took place eight months apart because Sakarias had been initially found incompetent to stand trial.
What most likely happened, according to all of the evidence, is that Sakarias was telling the truth when he told police that Waidla struck the first blow and that Piirisild was already dead when Sakarias struck the last two blows after the body had already been moved from the front of the house, where the victim was attacked, to a bedroom, Werdegar wrote.
The justices upheld Sakarias’ conviction, but overturned the death sentence. They unanimously upheld the conviction of Waidla, along with his death sentence, saying there was no reasonable theory of the crime that would have caused a jury to spare him.
Ipsen has denied any intent to mislead the Sakarias jury. He also insists that he violated no ethical rules because at the time of the trials, the law was uncertain as to whether a prosecutor could argue inconsistent theories before separate triers of fact if there was some evidence to support each theory.
The issue is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, which has agreed to review an Ohio case in which the defendant was sentenced to death after prosecutors argued he fired the shot that killed the victim of a home-invasion robbery, then introduced evidence at an accomplice’s trial that the accomplice had admitted firing the shot.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company