Politics Enter Murder Retrial in Orange County Cold Case

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SANTA ANA (CNS) - The dismissal of a murder conviction for a 61-year-old man stemming from fallout in the jailhouse informant scandal spilled over into the Orange County District Attorney's election next year.

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer sparred with his challenger, Peter Hardin, over the move to order a new trial for Paul Gentile Smith, who was serving a term of life without parole for a 1988 murder.

“Todd Spitzer promised to clean up the office in the wake of the snitch scandal,'' Hardin said in a statement. “Instead, he just co-signed on it.''

Hardin, a former state and federal prosecutor and Marine Corps judge advocate, noted that Spitzer has referred to the prosecutor who put Smith in prison -- Assistant District Attorney Ebrahim Baytieh -- as his “North Star... someone you look up to to guide you.''

Hardin added, “That guidance has left our justice system mired in scandal.''

Baytieh, who is running for Orange County Superior Court judge, was put in charge of retraining local law enforcement on the so-called Brady law governing the exchange of evidence between prosecutors and defense attorneys following the snitch scandal.

“Prosecutors informed defense attorneys in 2019 that they'd failed to turn over crucial evidence,'' Hardin said. “Spitzer asked for a new trial two years later, only after defense attorneys requested a hearing to determine whether prosecutors violated the defendant's constitutional rights.

“By waiting, DA Spitzer abdicated the duty of the prosecutor to defense attorneys, a portrait of the `win-at-all-cost' mentality that he asserts is no longer tolerated.''

Smith's attorneys, Scott Sanders and Sara Ross, had been granted an evidentiary hearing by Orange County Superior Court Judge Patrick Donahue on allegations that authorities illegally used inmates to pump Smith for information.

Inmates are allowed to overhear incriminating statements and pass them along to authorities with no promises of reciprocity on their cases, but in the informant scandal Sanders pointed out multiple cases in which he alleged defendants were promised deals and questioned inmates even after they were charged and represented by counsel, which is illegal.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Seton Hunt announced in court on Thursday that several sheriff's deputies who would have been called as witnesses in Smith's evidentiary hearing would invoke their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination so, therefore, the District Attorney's Office asked Donahue to grant a new trial for Smith.

On Monday, Donahue vacated the murder conviction with special circumstance allegations of torture and robbery and Smith will be arraigned on a new case on Friday.

“The prosecutor has a duty to seek justice, and  Todd Spitzer has once again demonstrated that he is not up to the task,'' Hardin said.

“It's a failure that has come at great cost to the integrity of our criminal justice system, the credibility of the Orange County District Attorney's Office, and the victims in this case who just had their world turned upside down. Todd Spitzer has perpetuated yet another injustice. That not only strains public trust in an office overwhelmed by scandal, it reflects a crisis of leadership.''

Spitzer fired back, “In keeping with my promise to restore integrity at the District Attorney's Office, we asked for the defendant to be granted a new trial at the very first opportunity he had to be heard by (the judge). Criminal attorney Pete Hardin is standing side by side with a charged murderer and is intentionally trying to jeopardize the retrial of a case where the victim was stabbed 18 times, nearly decapitated, and then lit on fire.

“Hardin's baseless attacks are intended to distract voters from the fact that he wants to turn Orange County into Los Angeles, where criminals are put first by their DA, and victims are always last.''

At Thursday's hearing, Hunt blamed sheriff's deputies for withholding evidence of efforts to use the jailhouse informant program in Smith's prosecution.

The alleged scheme to work Smith illegally for incriminating statements was uncovered in  the evidentiary hearings revolving around similar attempts to ensnare Scott Dekraai in the confidential informant program, Smith's attorneys said.

The program was uncovered during the case against Dekraai, the worst mass killer in Orange County history.

The newly uncovered evidence allowed Smith's attorneys to file a habeas corpus motion, which was necessary because Smith's convictions were upheld by appellate justices.

Sanders doubted prosecutors, including Baytieh, were unaware of evidence that deputies directed three inmates to solicit incriminating statements from Smith.

Spitzer blamed his predecessor, Tony Rackauckas, for failing to turn over information to defense attorneys regarding an informant in the case.

Smith pleaded guilty before his sentencing in 2010 to conspiring with his then-girlfriend to solicit an attack on the lead investigator in his murder case, but Sanders and Ross will work to get those charges thrown out.

Smith was convicted of first-degree murder with jurors also finding true a special circumstance allegation of torture for the Oct. 24, 1988, killing of 29-year-old Robert Haugen.

Smith and Haugen had been friends for eight or nine years and Smith was a regular customer of Haugen, who was a marijuana dealer, Baytieh said during the defendant's trial.

Haugen was stabbed 18 times with the victim's nude body found on his bed with a pillow over his head and a large stereo speaker between his legs that was set afire.

Smith was linked to the killing after he was convicted in a domestic violence case in Las Vegas in 2007 and police obtained a DNA sample from the defendant.

Smith stabbed, tortured and attempted to set fire to Tina Smith, who is no relation to the defendant, in Las Vegas in 2007.

Investigators found blood spots in Haugen's apartment that they eventually matched to Smith.

Copyright 2021, City News Service, Inc.

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