High Court to Hear Local DAs
by Martha Sadler
The California Supreme Court will hear two legally separate but thematically related cases involving two veteran prosecutors from the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s office. In each instance, a lower court has ruled in favor of the criminal defendants who are demanding that the deputy district attorneys assigned to their cases be disqualified because the attorneys have used the defendants’ stories in works of popular fiction. Deputy District Attorney Joyce Dudley published Intoxicating Agent, a novel based on rape charges leveled against Massey Haruchi Haraguchi, while
The court also said that prosecutors in death penalty cases, such as Jesse James Hollywood’s, must be held to the highest standards of behavior.
Deputy District Attorney Ron Zonen consulted with producers of a movie based on the murder of which Jesse James Hollywood stands accused. Hollywood has yet to be tried, but the movie, Alpha Dog, is scheduled for release this month. In October, the 2nd District Court of Appeal, Division 6, ruled that the defendants were unlikely to receive fair trials at the hands of these prosecutors and ordered the prosecutors recused from the cases.
Instead of merely reassigning the cases to different attorneys, the DA’s office is fighting for the honor of its prosecutors. The Court of Appeal overstepped its authority, according to DDA Gerald Franklin, a colleague of Zonen and Dudley, who is handling the appeals work. In reviewing requests for recusal, courts of appeal usually defer to the judgment of local courts which know the characters of the lawyers involved. Instead, Franklin said, in Zonen and Dudley’s cases, the appeal justices simply ignored the local court’s judgment and substituted their own.
In its ruling, the Court of Appeal stated that the lower court had “no precedent to guide it” in these “unusual” cases and opined that cases should not be tried in the popular media. The court also said that prosecutors in death penalty cases, such as Hollywood’s, must be held to the highest standards of behavior. (Zonen has admitted to improperly turning over his files to the moviemakers as part of an effort to capture Hollywood, who was then a fugitive.)
Both sides in the Hollywood case appealed the Court of Appeal decision, though for different reasons. While the DA’s office has stated that the Court of Appeal should not have recused Zonen, Hollywood’s attorneys want the entire DA’s office recused from the case. James Blatt, Hollywood’s attorney, argued that the rest of the office must have been aware of Zonen’s activities, and therefore the other prosecutors share Zonen’s willingness to treat Hollywood unfairly. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear both appeals. In addition, the Supreme Court decided to hear the Haraguchi case as well, even though neither side had appealed that ruling.
According to Franklin, the standard for recusal is very simple: A prosecutor should be removed from a case if he or she has a conflict of interest so severe that the defendant is unlikely to receive a fair trial. In the Hollywood case, Superior Court Judge Brian Hill ruled that Zonen did not have a conflict of interest. Franklin said that although the Court of Appeal’s job was to determine whether Judge Hill “abused his discretion” in reaching that decision, it instead ignored this function and started creating new standards for its judgment. Zonen’s actions might make him subject to disciplinary action, Franklin acknowledged. However, the Court of Appeal did not discuss whether what it termed Zonen’s “overzealousness” constituted a conflict of interest. “The Court of Appeal ruling in this case,” Franklin wrote in his petition to the Supreme Court, “announced a new, subjective, entirely self-executing and quite breathtaking test. … A prosecutor may be recused if the reviewing court itself disapproves of the prosecutor’s conduct prior to trial, and … simply to eliminate any basis for an argument on further appeal.”
Franklin maintained that these two cases are not so unusual that the Court of Appeal must make new standards to apply to them, insisting that enough precedent exists. “The reviewing court’s apparent belief that the trial court was confronted by an issue that required something other than a routine exercise of discretion is mistaken,” Franklin said.