Tuesday, July 11, 2006
High Court Upholds Murder Conviction of Prosecutor’s Stepson
Failure to Disqualify District Attorney’s Office Based on Relationship Held Harmless in 5-2 Ruling
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Two convicted murderers who claim the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office discriminated against them because because the mother and stepfather of one of them were employed by that office yesterday lost their bid for a new trial.
In a 5-2 decision, the state Supreme Court affirmed the convictions of Andrew Vasquez and Anthony Fregoso in the 2000 stabbing death of Armando Ayala near Fairfax High School. Both are serving sentences of 16 years to life in prison for second degree murder.
The defendants raised a number of issues, but the high court limited review to the question of whether Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler committed reversible error by denying their motion to recuse the entire District Attorney’s Office.
At the time the motion was brought, Vasquez’s stepfather had been employed for more than a dozen years as a deputy district attorney and his mother for about the same period in an administrative position.
Prosecutors charged that Vasquez and Fregoso attacked Ayala, with Vasquez carrying a knife and Fregoso a baseball bat, as part of a dispute between rival tagging crews that frequently engaged in after-school fistfights. The attack allegedly occurred the day after Ayala and two other men used fists and mace to attack a girl who apparently had some relationship to the crew to which Vasquez and Fregoso belonged.
Ayala died from a stab wound that severed an artery.
Defense counsel originally moved to recuse the prosecutor’s office before Judge Norman Shapiro. Although the office had at one point asked the Attorney General’s Office to take over the case, it had declined to do so, and the judge denied the motion.
The defense accused prosecutors of an “over-zealous approach to avoid the appearance of impropriety” as evidenced by the fact that prosecutors would not consent to a jury waiver. The prosecutor handling the case at that time said the reason for declining was that a waiver might create an appearance of favoritism toward Vasquez based on the fact that his family members, as well as the judge, had been employed by the District Attorney’s Office.
The first trial ended in a mistrial after two jurors voted to convict the defendants of first degree murder, six of second degree murder, three of voluntary manslaughter and one voted to acquit.
The case was then reassigned to Fidler. In renewing its motion to recuse the prosecutor’s office, the defense cited the arguments in front of Shapiro as well as the unwillingness of prosecutors to offer a voluntary manslaughter plea after the first trial.
Fidler denied the motion, saying the defense failed to show that disqualification was necessary to ensure a fair trial. The case then went to a second trial before separate juries, both of whom returned guilty verdicts on the included charge of second degree murder.
Div. Seven of this district’s Court of Appeal agreed that the District Attorneys’ Office should have been disqualified, but found the defendants suffered no prejudice and affirmed the convictions.
Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar, writing for the high court, said the Div. Seven panel was correct.
While a familial relationship between two employees of a large prosecutor’s office and a defendant does not necessarily require disqualification of the whole office, Werdegar wrote, recusal is appropriate if the relationship has influenced the conduct of the prosecutors assigned to the case.
The deputy district attorney’s admission that her objection to a bench trial was based in part on the fact that Vasquez was related to employees of her office “demonstrated a likelihood defendants would not be treated fairly by the [District Attorney’s Office] at all stages of the criminal proceedings, requiring the office’s recusal.”
No Constitutional Violation
But Werdegar went on to explain that denial of the recusal motion, while erroneous under the disqualification standards of Penal Code Sec. 1424, did not rise to the level of a state or federal constitutional violation.
Citing cases from a number of jurisdictions, the justice reasoned that prosecutorial conflict of interest does not deprive the accused of fundamental fairness unless the conflict gives the assigned prosecutors “a direct, substantial interest in the outcome or conduct of the case separate from their proper interest in seeing justice done.”
No such interest was shown in this case, Werdegar went on to say, nor was there any fundamental, structural error. “[T]he participation of a conflicted prosecutor, while it may be error under section 1424, is not as fundamental a flaw in the fairness of the proceedings as the participation of a biased or conflicted judge or juror or a conflicted defense attorney,” she wrote.
The justice went on to say that the lack of a bench trial in front of Shapiro was not prejudicial in light of the hung jury—the defense did not seek a bench trial in front of Fidler—and the unlikelihood that Shapiro would have acquitted the defendants had he tried them without a jury.
Werdegar was joined by Justices Joyce L. Kennard, Marvin Baxter, Ming Chin, and Carol Corrigan.
Justice Carlos Moreno, joined by Chief Justice Ronald M. George, argued in dissent that the defendants were deprived of due process as a result of “a pattern of unfair treatment...both on the record and reasonably inferable from the record.”
The district attorney’s bid to hand the case off to the attorney general, Moreno wrote, suggests that the office realized it had an “institutional” conflict.
Beyond that, he said, the refusal to waive jury trial, and to accept a manslaughter plea after only eight jurors voted for a murder conviction, combined with the existence of evidence that would have supported a finding that the defendants intended to assault and scare the victim rather than kill him, supports a finding that a conflict of interest “permeated the prosecutor’s treatment” of the accused.
“These decisions must be viewed in light of the recognition by the Los Angeles District Attorney that this case represented a potentially disabling conflict as evidenced by his unsuccessful tender of the case to the Attorney General,” Moreno argued. “Thus, the individual prosecutor’s discretion in this case was guided by institutional concerns about showing favoritism to Vasquez rather than concerns personal to her.”
The case was argued on appeal by court-appointed defense attorney Nancy J. King of San Diego and Deputy Attorney General Herbert S. Tetef.
The case is People v. Vasquez, 06 S.O.S. 3527.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company