People always say it would be great to be a weatherman – they say it’s the only job in America where you can always be wrong and still have a job. Well, being a District Attorney seems to also be a position where no matter how badly or maliciously you do your job, there are no real consequences. Two recent cases are just the latest examples of this frustrating reality. Both involve stories that if you saw them on TV you would think the writers had gone over the top.
The People of California v. Efrain Velasco-Palacios
Kern County prosecutor Robert Murray physically added two lines of transcript to a statement supposedly made by the defendant. The defendant was charged with molesting a child and Murray added that the defendant also confessed to having sexual intercourse with the child and said “I’m glad she’s not pregannt like her mother.” With these two sentences, Murray was able to threaten charges that carried a term of life in prison. The defense counsel, armed with this information, went and negotiated a plea deal with the prosecutor after confronting his client with the transcript. Fortunately, even though the deal was struck, the defense counsel insisted on hearing the tape before putting the plea on the record. It was only then that ADA Murray came clean and admitted he added those two false sentences.
Instead of a plea deal, defense counsel moved to dismiss the indictment charging prosecutorial misconduct. Murray opposed the motion actually saying that he added the liens as a “joke.” California Judge H.A. Staley who heard the motion was not laughing. He found that Murray’s falsification of evidence during discovery and plea negotiations was “egregious, outrageous, and . . . shocked the conscience.” He dismissed the indictment and in a scathing opinion, stated that Murray’s actions “diluted the protections accompanying the right to counsel and ran the risk of fraudulently inducing defendant to enter a plea and forfeit his right to a jury trial.” The court refused to “tolerate such outrageous conduct that results in the deprivation of basic fundamental constitutional rights that are designed to provide basic fairness.”
To make matters worse, California State Attorney General Kamala Harris would not let it be. She appealed the dismissal arguing that only actual physical brutality would warrant a finding of prosecutorial misconduct and the dismissal of an indictment. The appellate court disagreed, upholding the dismissal highlighting and agreeing with Judge Staley’s strong words.
Yet, despite these clear facts, Robert Murray remains employed as an Assistant DA in Kern County and will likely never face criminal charges. Of course, in addition to the harm Murray did to the justice system in general, his conduct caused the dismissal of an indictment against someone who may have committed the underlying crimes.
Louisiana v. Donald Dendinger
Donald Dendinger had the bad luck of being the uncle of a young man who wanted to sue the Bogalusa Louisiana Police Department for brutality following his being beaten during an arrest. His nephew asked him if he would serve the summons on Chad Cassard, the officer involved, and Dendinger agreed. So he waited outside the County Courthouse until Officer Cassard exited, in the company of two assistant state prosecutors and four other officers. Dendinger handed the officer the envelope containing the summons and walked away as did Cassard. But 20 minutes later, police showed up to Dendinger’s house and arrested him. He was jailed on charges of simple battery, obstruction of justice and intimidating a witness. Two of those charges are felonies, and a prior cocaine conviction on Dendinger’s record threatened to land him in jail for a long time as a repeat offender.
The charges lay idle for nearly a year until then-District Attorney Walter Reed officially filed charges against Dendinger. His case was backed by two prosecutors who asserted that Dendinger had assaulted Cassard. They are Julie Knight and Leigh Anne Wall. Several other witness statements also supported the case. Cassard himself claimed that Dendinger “slapped him in the chest” when he served the summons causing him to be pushed back several feet. Pamela Legendre, a staff attorney with the State’s Attorney’s Office who allegedly witnessed the hand-off, said she thought Dendinger had punched Cassard. Bogalusa police chief Joe Culpepper said that Dendinger had used “violence” and “force” in serving the summons. Dendinger was in some really hot water.
That is, he would be if his wife and nephew hadn’t recorded the whole service of process on their cell phones. It was Dendinger’s idea to record the service so the cop could not deny getting the papers. The video is grainy but it shows Dendinger calmly walking up to Cassard and peacefully giving him the envelope. It then shows both men walking away without incident. What would Dendinger do if it wasn’t recorded? – JAIL TIME that’s what. The State Attorney General took over the case after Dendinger’s attorney filed a motion to have Walter Reed recuse himself since his assistant district attorneys were going to be witnesses. Once the State AG examined the evidence, he dropped all charges.
While Ms Wall has since left the office, Julie Knight is still an assistant district attorney in Washington Parish. To date, no charges have been brought against any of the parties who filed false statements and made Mr. Dendinger endure over two years of hell and nearly ruined his life.
And you thought weatherman had it easy.
Follow Oscar Michelen on twitter @oscarmichelen