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Sex, Justice and the D.A.'s Office 

Could a prosecutor’s affair with a stripper bring down a death-penalty conviction and Steve Cooley?

Wednesday, Aug 16 2006
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The 1982 murder trial of Adam Miranda and its aftermath played out like a particularly salacious episode of Law & Order. There was the key witness, a stripper named Donna Navarro, testifying against her former classmate, and the prosecutor, Curt Hazell, an ambitious young lawyer, who was the college roommate of future Los Angeles D.A. Steve Cooley. The prosecutor and the witness had an affair that produced a child and more than two decades’ worth of fodder for the downtown rumor mills. In the background was Cooley, who, 20 years later, faces questions about whether his good buddy’s affair with Navarro tainted the death-penalty case.

Ordinarily, what a prosecutor does on his own time is his business. But sex with anyone involved in a murder case, whether it be an informant, a juror or the government’s key witness, looks bad. It amounts to at least an appearance of impropriety. Even if the relationship began after the trial, death-penalty appeals often last decades. The defense has the right to know exactly when the prosecutor crossed the line — and whether the affair affected the case.

After more than 20 years, that inquiry is just getting under way in the case of People vs. Adam Miranda. Lawyers for Miranda did not learn about Hazell’s paternity — no secret within the D.A.’s Office — until May 19. The confirming letter from the D.A.’s Office, obtained by the L.A. Weekly, is but the most recent development marring the death-penalty conviction, which now rests on shakier ground than ever.

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Hazell’s failure to turn over other potentially exculpatory evidence to defense lawyers has already led to lengthy state and federal court appeals. This recent revelation, which ends a two-decade cover-up, further threatens to overturn the case. Equally troubling is the taint of cronyism that comes with Cooley’s 2005 promotion of Hazell, one of his closest friends, to a top assistant in charge of capital crimes. Hazell, who, according to public records, lives with Special Assistant D.A. Patricia Doyle, another high-ranking officer, also oversees the head of the Public Integrity Division. It all comes as Cooley eyes a run for a third term in 2008.

“Hazell is protected at the highest level,” says a veteran prosecutor in the D.A.’s Office. “Prosecutors don’t like prosecutors having sex with witnesses. Especially not the prosecutors who run the office. You can’t trust them to correct this sort of behavior, and you can’t trust them not to punish anyone who comes forward and exposes it.”

Neither Cooley nor Hazell returned calls for comment. On Thursday, spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said Hazell has never hid the three-year relationship from his superiors, including Cooley. Neither did he hide that it led to the birth of his son. “Why should he? He didn’t do anything wrong,” Gibbons said, adding that the relationship began after the trial, and that Hazell has raised the child on his own. “That’s pretty damn commendable.”

Miranda was convicted of fatally shooting an Eagle Rock convenience-store clerk named Gary Black in 1980. At the 1982 trial, Hazell charged Miranda with the special circumstance that he had committed another murder, the stabbing of a drug dealer over a dispute about $10. An accomplice in the stabbing case testified against Miranda, who was sentenced to death.

What Miranda and his lawyers did not know, despite a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that requires prosecutors to disclose evidence that diminishes guilt, was that prosecutors had received a letter from an inmate named Larry Montez stating that Joseph Saucedo, the accomplice, admitted to doing the stabbing. Instead, the jury heard Saucedo finger Miranda, whose lawyers were unable to refute the damning witness testimony.

Miranda’s lawyers now plan to amend his appeal on grounds of witness tampering, undue influence and the failure of the D.A.’s Office to disclose the relationship between Hazell and Navarro, the witness in the shooting case. “If a prosecutor has a relationship with a witness, that has to be disclosed,” said defense attorney Kerry Bensinger. “It’s remarkable that we didn’t hear about this sooner.”

The truth surfaced in May, in the context of a civil-service grievance by veteran prosecutor James Bozajian, a three-term councilman from Calabasas and a board member of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys. Bozajian got crossways with Cooley’s front office in 2003, when he protested a performance evaluation given by Hazell.

In a May 17 memo to the Civil Service Commission, which the D.A.’s Office attempted to seal, Bozajian disclosed Hazell’s relationship with Navarro. According to sources in the D.A.’s Office, prosecutors have openly speculated about the matter for years. Despite persistent requests by defense lawyers for any information that could aid Miranda in his defense, the D.A.’s Office, and Hazell, have kept quiet.

Two days after Bozajian’s memo, however, on May 19, Lael Rubin, head deputy of the D.A.’s appellate division, wrote to Miranda’s lawyers, “Out of an abundance of caution, I want to inform you [that] after sentencing in the capital case, the trial prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Curt Hazell, had a relationship with Donna Navarro, a witness. Mr. Hazell and Ms. Navarro had a child who has been raised by Mr. Hazell.” Navarro, who later compiled a lengthy rap sheet of theft and drug-related crimes, died in 2002.

Despite Hazell’s claim that the relationship began after the trial, there are signs that a bond between the prosecutor and the mother of his child formed earlier. Court records state that Navarro was coming home from work one night in 1980 and happened upon the convenience store where Gary Black was murdered. She recognized Miranda, her former junior high school classmate, leaving the store with a gun in his hand. After Navarro testified against Miranda, in 1982, Hazell and executives from Atlantic Richfield Co. — owners of the convenience store — gave her a $25,000 reward, according to a news report. The reward, paid for by ARCO, allowed Navarro to move away from her neighborhood, where she feared for her life, Hazell told a reporter in the 1980s. “What she did was incredibly courageous,” he said, noting that neighborhood youths had made her life “absolute hell.” Court transcripts further show Hazell protecting Navarro from being harassed by refusing to reveal the club where she stripped.

Since Miranda was sentenced to death, Hazell has played a role in his appeals in both state and federal court. But the larger issue in the case has been the letter by Larry Montez, which was left buried in a prosecution file for 14 years, until a federal judge ordered that the file be turned over to the defense. In December 2000, Hazell swore under penalty of perjury that he had no recollection of the letter from the time he began prosecuting the case: “I have no reason to believe [the letter] was not provided to the defense.” However, on June 4, 2002, a judge concluded that defense lawyers never received the Montez letter.

In 2005, Cooley elevated Hazell to chairman of the office’s Special Circumstances Committee, which allows Hazell to sign off on all decisions about whether to seek the death penalty. He did not usher in an era of candor. Last September, in response to a public-records request by Bozajian for “all documents in the D.A.’s possession in connection with the Miranda case,” the D.A.’s Office stated it was “unable to locate” the file.

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