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Web of Deceit 

Murder conviction overturned because D.A. withheld evidence

Thursday, Aug 14 2003
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A state appellate court has overturned the murder conviction of Jose Salazar for killing an infant girl in 1996, ruling that the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office deliberately concealed information from the defense about a deputy coroner’s mistakes, his altered findings and changed testimony in other homicide cases.

The case against Salazar had focused on the timing of the child’s injuries. Since that timeline was in dispute, and no forensic evidence or eyewitness tied him to the crime, the appeals court determined that the introduction of Deputy Coroner James Ribe’s credibility problems would likely have produced a different verdict.

The unanimous decision was handed down last week. The three-judge panel also ordered the case returned to the trial court. But the District Attorney’s Office has not yet said if it will retry the case. The 2nd Appellate District underscored its anger at the D.A.’s Office by publishing the opinion, meaning it can be cited as a precedent by defense attorneys, and naming names of the offending parties.

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Gail Harper, Salazar’s appellate attorney, said the oral arguments in June signaled victory. “The judges patiently listened to me. Then they challenged the deputy attorney general, representing the D.A., to explain why sanctions shouldn’t be issued for this deliberate Brady violation.”

Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 Brady v. Maryland decision, prosecutors must turn over potentially exculpatory evidence to defense attorneys. Withholding such favorable evidence violates a person’s right to a fair trial. “The D.A.’s Office has this ‘win at any cost’ attitude. Publishing it and naming names is the only way you get these folks’ attention,” Harper says. “They don’t give a damn about their legal obligations. I hope attorneys in other Ribe cases are lining up to file appeals.”

Salazar was sentenced to 15 years to life for killing Adriana Krygoski. He volunteered to watch her while the babysitter went shopping. He was the boyfriend of the sitter’s daughter and lived with them. Witnesses testified that the child had two visible head bruises when her mother dropped her off, but otherwise appeared to be healthy. The toddler then hit her head on a coffee table while Salazar’s girlfriend was with her.

When the infant awoke from her nap, she started vomiting. Salazar said he tried to help, but eventually called 911. At the hospital, doctors discovered two skull fractures. Ribe testified that the injuries were consistent with violent shaking or hitting a flat surface. The injuries, he said, would have rendered Adriana “instantaneously” unconscious. Without treatment, death would have followed within a few minutes or a few hours. The defense’s medical expert strongly disagreed, arguing that the injuries could have occurred hours earlier. But Ribe’s timeline focused suspicion on Salazar.

Prosecutors intentionally withheld information about Ribe’s inconsistent testimony in other child-death cases, particularly the 1995 beating death of 2 1/2-year-old Lance Helms. The issues in that case closely match those in Salazar’s.

In the Helms case, Ribe testified that death occurred within “30 to 60 minutes” of his injuries. The boy’s mother, Eve Wingfield, was with him when he died. Wingfield’s public defender then persuaded her to plead guilty to a lesser charge of child abuse. Ribe later changed his mind and told detectives the boy died immediately after the beating. The LAPD reopened the case in 1996 and charged Helms’ father. David Helms was convicted of murder, and Wingfield was released. An appeal is pending, and Harper says the appellate court requested she investigate potential Brady violations in that case.

The appellate court also highlighted other Ribe cases. At the 1996 trial of Roberto Cauchi, for the torture-murder of a child, Ribe changed his earlier preliminary-hearing testimony, introducing unexpected evidence of sexual abuse and “shaken baby” syndrome. In the 1996 gunshot-murder trial of Sean Hand, Ribe changed his preliminary testimony about the wounds and time of death. In the 1996 trial of Charles Rathbun, Ribe changed his conclusion on the cause of Linda Sobek’s death from inconclusive to strangulation. In the 1996 “shaken baby” death trial of Destiny Jacobo, Ribe admitted missing two bruises and changed his conclusions about the time of death. In the 1997 stabbing-death trial of Lorrie Tuccinardi, Ribe changed his testimony about the wounds. At a 1997 preliminary hearing for Edith Arce and Rene Urbano, in a child-murder case, Ribe testified that he changed his mind about a bruise, saying it came from a blow, not a bedsore.

Appellate Judge J. Gary Hastings wrote, “The duty of disclosure [exculpatory material by prosecutors] does not end when the trial is over.” Hastings also detailed the efforts taken by Deputy D.A. Jennifer Turkat, who prosecuted Salazar; her supervisor, Alan Yochelson; his supervisor, Roger Gunson; and the D.A.’s Office to stonewall Salazar’s defense, Harper, and even Deputy D.A. Dinko Bozanich, the prosecutor of the Arce/Urbano case.

Ultimately, it was Bozanich, a veteran prosecutor, who exposed this web of deceit. In 1999, he gave Harper an affidavit on his investigation into Ribe and the D.A.’s repeated failure to disclose exculpatory evidence. In his opinion, this revealed “intolerable and unethical practices at the highest levels of our office.”

Harper says it was Bozanich’s stand that helped her discover the truth. And Gigi Gordon, a veteran defense attorney and acknowledged Brady expert, says, “Dinko is the real hero here. He broke the code of silence inside the D.A.’s Office.”

Bozanich says he only did what prosecutors must do ethically. “What happened here sends an awful message to young prosecutors and the public,” he explains. “When prosecutors do something wrong, sanctions should follow.” Bozanich says it’s evidence of a “just win, baby” philosophy that developed during Gil Garcetti’s tenure. “I’m sorry to say, nothing has changed under Steve Cooley.”

But Lael Rubin, a special counsel to D.A. Cooley who helped establish his office’s Brady Policy and Alert System for prosecutors to check out witnesses, insists things are better. “If the office had our Brady policy in place prior to December 2000, this case would have been handled very differently.”

But the Cooley administration has been in office for two years, and it could have told the court that Garcetti’s position was a mistake. Yet it didn’t. “We just got the Salazar decision this week,” responds Rubin.

And what of the Brady Alert System? Is Ribe’s name included? “No, I don’t think so,” she answers. “Our system is not totally complete.”

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