Friday, December 19, 2003
Prosecutor Deliberately Argued Conflicting Theories, Judge Finds
High Court to Decide Whether Misconduct by Deputy District Attorney Steven Ipsen Requires Retrial of Death Penalty Cases
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A Los Angeles deputy district attorney deliberately presented inconsistent arguments at the separate trials of two men charged with a San Fernando Valley murder, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge has concluded.
In findings filed Tuesday with the state Supreme Court, a copy of which was obtained yesterday by the MetNews, Judge Thomas Willhite Jr. found that Deputy District Attorney Steven Ipsen intentionally argued different theories of each defendant’s role in order to maximize the possibility that each defendant would receive the death penalty.
The state high court referred the case for findings to Willhite after attorneys for the two men, Tauno Waidla and Peter Sakarias, brought habeas corpus petitions asserting prosecutorial misconduct. The two were convicted 12 years ago of the 1988 murder of Vilvi Piirsild, and their direct appeals were rejected by the high court three years ago.
The case is merely one of several controversies swirling around Ipsen, who is currently president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys and a member of the State Bar Board of Governors. Ipsen is the central force in a campaign to unseat Los Angeles Superior Court Judges Dan Oki and David Wesley, whom he has accused of endangering public safety by closing an arraignment court early one day last spring.
His efforts have drawn criticism from other judges and from some of his fellow prosecutors. His boss, District Attorney Steve Cooley, has endorsed Wesley and has not taken a position in the Oki race.
Willhite found that Ipsen deliberately attributed “a particularly gruesome injury,” a “chopping wound” inflicted with a hatchet to one defendant, but argued to the contrary at the trial of the other. The trials took place eight months apart because Sakarias had been found incompetent to stand trial.
Ipsen’s testimony that the inconsistency was inadvertent was “unconvincing,” Willhite found.
“Despite a lapse of eight months between trials, it is unlikely that a competent and committed prosecutor like Ipsen, handling the severed trials of two defendants jointly charged capital murder, would simply forget at the second trial what specific factual theory of the gruesome killing he presented at the first” the judge wrote.
Robert Derham, a San Anselmo attorney for Sakarias, said the judge ruled correctly. The next step, he said, is for the high court to receive briefs and consider argument on whether to order new trials.
Ipsen said that he had “not thoroughly reviewed” the findings and that it would be “inappropriate” to talk about them while the case is still pending.
He emphasized that he has “complete respect” for Willhite. What is tragic about the case, he said, is that “the system” requires lawyers and judges to decide a case based not on the evidence, but on trying to remember “what we were thinking 12 years ago.”
That system put him and the judge in “an impossible position” and is unfair both to defendants and victims, he elaborated.
Ipsen also disclosed yesterday that he has been transferred to the Antelope Valley courthouse, effective next month. The transfer is unrelated to either the Sakarias and Waidla cases or his political activities, and he is perfectly happy with it, he commented.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company