Off the Case

Deputy DAs Removed Due to Book, Film Projects

by Martha Sadler

The California Second District Court of Appeal delivered a one-two punch to the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s office this week, removing two top prosecutors from cases at the request of criminal defendants. In each case, prosecutors were engaged before or during trial in producing commercial works of fiction — a novel in one case, a movie in the other — based on the crimes they accused the defendants of having committed. The justices found it was “unlikely” that the defendants would receive fair trials at the hands of those prosecutors.

The first defendant was Massey Harushi Haraguchi, who faced trial on charges of raping a woman too drunk to give legal consent. At the same time that she was prosecuting Haraguchi, Senior Deputy District Attorney Joyce Dudley was writing and promoting Intoxicating Agent, a self-published novel about rape by intoxication. Dudley’s novel stars a fictional protagonist — Santa Barbara County Deputy District Attorney Jordon Danner — who Dudley acknowledged was a “pumped-up version” of herself. She argued that the novel was not based on the Haraguchi case, but the justices disagreed.

The justices were chagrined at the fictional prosecutor’s description of the fictional defendant as “a dirt bag,” “despicable,” “felony ugly,” “a pig,” and “a heartless bastard.” “These stereotypical generalizations have no place in a current public prosecutor’s thinking,” the justices wrote, adding that there is a “reasonable possibility that Dudley’s perspective of the criminal justice system, like Danner’s, is so one-sided … that she may not exercise her discretionary functions in an even-handed manner.” The justices were also concerned that Dudley might not accept a reasonable settlement offer because a negotiated settlement would “garner no laurels” or publicity for her book. They ruled that she had a disabling conflict of interest between her prosecutorial duty on the one hand and her pursuit of “fame and fortune” on the other. All that being said, the justices added in a footnote that their “opinion should not be construed as an attack on the character of the prosecutor. We view Dudley’s conduct as a single lapse of judgment.”

The other defendant who won a recusal was Jesse James Hollywood, charged with masterminding the 2000 kidnap-murder of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz. Deputy District Attorney Ron Zonen cooperated with writer-director Nick Cassavetes to produce Alpha Dog, a movie based on the killing. Zonen — a colleague of Dudley’s — was not seeking fame and fortune when he acted as a consultant on Alpha Dog, according to the appeal court. However, the justices ruled that his participation in the movie constituted an overzealous effort to capture Hollywood, who was still at large when Cassavetes approached Zonen.

But Zonen’s efforts proved problematic. First, the movie — which has yet to be released even though Hollywood was captured in 2005 — turned out not to include even a photograph of the real Hollywood. Secondly, Zonen — by his own admission — handed over to the filmmakers confidential documents including rap sheets, witness phone numbers, and a psychiatric report. One of the filmmakers, Michael Mehan, discussed the case with Zonen after interviewing the witnesses, potentially violating the defense’s right to discovery of the same evidence to which the prosecutor is privy. Mehan then refused to give a declaration to Hollywood’s defense counsel for fear of putting Zonen in an awkward circumstance, and he also refused to turn over to the court the materials Zonen had given him.

The situation is rich with opportunities for appeal if Hollywood is convicted, the justices opined — all the more so because it is a death penalty case, with automatic appeals. “To say that Zonen went too far in his attempt to apprehend the petitioner is an understatement,” wrote the justices, who added that they did not want to “embolden other prosecutors to assist the media in the public vilification of a defendant in a case which is yet to be tried.”

The court did not issue any general rulings that would forbid prosecuting attorneys from writing novels or consulting on movies, though it did express concern that the jury pools would be tainted in both cases, and opined that prosecutors should not try cases in the media. The two cases were characterized as precedent-setting, and the court’s rulings were published for future citation in similar cases. Both criminal cases will now return to Superior Court to be prosecuted by other members of the District Attorney’s office.

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