Friday, March 31, 2006
Order Recusing District Attorney in Murder Case Overturned
Defendant Failed to Show That Victim’s Son, a Deputy District Attorney, Interfered in Prosecution, Panel Rules
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge erred in disqualifying the entire District Attorney’s Office from prosecuting a defendant charged with killing a deputy district attorney’s mother, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Div. Eight reversed Judge Kathryne A. Stoltz’ order requiring that the prosecution of George Daniel Petrisca be turned over to the attorney general. Petrisca is charged with multiple felonies, including murder, based on his having driven his vehicle at excessive speeds on the wrong side of the road.
Evidence presented at the preliminary hearing showed that Petrisca’s vehicle collided with two cars. The driver of one of those vehicles, Shirley Semow—the mother of Deputy District Attorney Jeffrey Semow—died as a result of her injuries; Petrisca was charged with murder, manslaughter, and assault with a deadly weapon by means likely to produce great bodily injury.
In his recusal motion, Petrisca arged that Jeffrey Semow used his influence to make sure Petrisca was overcharged. He also claimed there was an inherent conflict because the Semow family was suing him and Jeffrey Semow’s brother had made clear that he would take a tough stance at any sentencing hearing.
No Close Relationship
The prosecutor handling the case, James Falco, testified that he did not have a close relationship with Jeffrey Semow. While they once worked at the same branch, they had not worked on any cases together or socialized outside the office, Falco said.
Falco added that the conclusion that Petrisca had acted with malice was one he reached based on his own review of the evidence and did not involve discussions with Jeffrey Semow. He spoke to Semow after the charges were filed, just as he would any other member of a homicide victim’s family, Falco explained, adding that there was no attempt by Jeffrey Semow to influence the prosecution of the case in any way.
There was “pressure” on him, he testified, in the sense that his colleagues were aware that the case involved a colleague’s mother. But that pressure was “not external where people are telling me how I should handle this case,” but rather a matter of his “being uncomfortable, because I’m putting pressure on myself,” he said.
Stoltz found that prosecutors had done nothing improper, but that “all things considered,” any prosecutor in the office would feel “more uncomfortable than a prosecutor from another agency,” and granted recusal.
No Substantial Evidence
Both the attorney general and the district attorney appealed. Justice Madeleine Flier, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the order was subject to reversal because the judge applied an incorrect standard and because the ruling was not supported by substantial evidence.
Recusal, Flier said, requires an actual conflict of interest. In the absence of any evidence of external interference with Falco’s exercise of his discretion, the justice wrote, no such conflict existed.
As to the contention that Jeffrew Semow or his brother would take a vociferous position at sentencing, the justice wrote, there was no evidence in the regard to that effect. Even if there was, she said, it would not create a conflict of interest because victim impact statements are presented by the individuals personally and are not part of the evidence presented by the prosecution.
The case is People v. Petrisca, B188294.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company