OC District Attorney Todd Spitzer is facing a new round of misconduct accusations, with a former homicide prosecutor alleging in a court filing that Spitzer lied to a judge to try to hide racially charged comments Spitzer made that impacted a high-profile murder case.
“I have come into possession of emails which reveal what I believe to be a fraud recently perpetrated upon this Court,” states a court filing late last week by Matt Murphy, who was a former star homicide prosecutor at the DA’s office who has now become one of Spitzer’s fiercest critics.
He accuses Spitzer – Orange County’s top prosecutor – of telling lies that violate his duties as an attorney under state law, including hiding the fact he decided to pursue the death penalty against Jamon Rayon Buggs, a Black man, after Spitzer made racially charged remarks to other prosecutors during an Oct. 1 discussion of the decision.
Spitzer is denying the allegations, saying he was completely honest with the court.
“The District Attorney’s statement to the court was factually accurate and complete and any allegation to the contrary is simply not true,” Spitzer’s office said in a statement this weekend.
The emails Murphy submitted to court reveal Spitzer decided to pursue the death penalty against Buggs as of Oct. 28 – four weeks after his Oct. 1 racial remarks – but then changed course to life in prison after his prosecutors wrote memos in December saying they would have to disclose Spitzer’s racial remarks to the judge.
Murphy alleges Spitzer then lied multiple times to the judge in an effort to keep secret the memos about his racial comments.
Among them was when Spitzer told the court that he made a decision to only seek life in prison but not death after his Oct. 1 racial statements when debating whether to seek the death penalty against Buggs.
“The only subsequent decision that I made after October 1, 2021 was that I would be seeking LWOP in this matter and not death,” Spitzer wrote in a Jan. 30 memo he submitted to Judge Gregg Prickett on Feb. 4.
Yet the newly revealed emails show Spitzer told prosecutors on Oct. 28 he had “made the decision to seek DP” – using a common shorthand for “death penalty.”
Murphy says this shows Spitzer outright lied to the judge – in violation of state law requirements for attorneys to not mislead courts.
“Clearly, Mr. Sptizer’s memorandum was presented in an attempt to persuade the court to keep his racist remarks hidden from Mr. Buggs’ defense lawyers, as well as from the public at large,” Murphy states in his filing.
“The motive for Mr. Spitzer’s lie is obvious,” he continued:
“To try to convince the court that the racially-charged statements set forth in [then-prosecutor Brahim] Baytieh’s narrative were much ado about nothing, instead of what every experienced capital litigator can see that it represents — a blunder of immense magnitude, and a shameful expression of racial bias in a setting of such solemnity and importance, that Mr. Spitzer reversed his position on seeking the death penalty for the sole purpose of keeping the issue hidden from Mr. Buggs’s defense team and the public.”
Asked for Spitzer’s response to the allegations, his office said, “No official decision [was] made on the death penalty until the court was notified on January 28, 2022 that we would not seek the death penalty.”
“We haven’t been served with a copy of the motion,” added the statement, provided by Spitzer’s spokeswoman Kimberly Edds.
“Questions of the defendant‘s mental competency were brought up by the defense and his behavior in court on October 27, 2021 made it clear that it was an issue that needed to be considered,” the statement added.
As for Spitzer’s Jan. 30 memo to the court, Edds said, “The District Attorney made the right decision to inform the court and disclose this situation out of an abundance of caution.”
Murphy accuses Spitzer of telling an additional lie to the court by claiming no one raised any concerns about his Oct. 1 racial remarks until nearly 90 days later, which Spitzer cited to undermine the credibility of concerns about the remarks.
“The fact that nearly 90 days had passed, not one person of the [DA] Special Circumstances committee asked to reconvene, or asked me for clarification of my statements, or in any way beforehand communicated any potential issues with my statements was literally mind-blowing,” Spitzer wrote in the opening paragraph of his Jan. 30 memo he submitted to Judge Prickett.
Yet the emails show Spitzer actually was told about the racial bias concerns more than 60 days earlier than he claimed to the court, Murphy states in his filing.
One of those documents shows that on Oct. 28, Spitzer received an email noting that a prior death penalty conversation about Buggs had included discussion of the Racial Justice Act – the racial bias law that prosecutors said requires Spitzer’s comments to be turned over to the defense.
“What’s more, [then-prosecutor Brahim] Baytieh’s email goes on to say that he (Baytieh) ‘relied on [the Racial Justice Act] in making my recommendation [not to pursue the death penalty],’ ” Murphy wrote.
Spitzer responded to that email 17 minutes later without contesting it, writing he had decided to pursue the death penalty against Buggs, according to the documents Murphy filed in court.
“Mr. Spitzer’s unabashed attempt to perpetrate a fraud on the court—by claiming that no one who heard the racially biased comments on October 1 protested until December 22 (and thus, Mr. Spitzer argues, the racially biased statements must not have been made at all)—relied on the erroneous belief that nobody else maintained copies of this email exchange,” Murphy wrote.
“Fortunately, he was mistaken.”
Spitzer’s statement did not address this allegation.
Murphy’s contention of a cover-up of Spitzer’s racial remarks are supported by a lead detective in the Buggs murder case and the mother of one of the victims.
“It was disappointing that [a prosecutor] and so many of his colleagues would try and cover this matter up as we all know the ‘cover up is always worse than the crime,’ ” Newport Beach police detective Court Depweg wrote in a Feb. 3 letter to Judge Prickett.
Murphy also contends Spitzer lied to the court about “walling off” from the case everyone from the Oct. 1 meeting – including himself – to address the concerns that he made racial biased comments.
“This was intended to convey the impression that he would no longer take any action that might affect the case,” Murphy wrote in his filing.
But two days later, Spitzer informed Newport Beach’s police chief that people can talk to him about the Buggs case, according to Depweg’s Feb. 3 letter to the judge – something Spitzer later confirmed in a statement to reporters.
That makes Spitzer’s “walling off” statements to the court a “deception,” Murphy alleges.
Spitzer’s statement did not address this allegation.
Murphy contends Spitzer violated state law, which requires all attorneys to use “means only as are consistent with truth, and never to seek to mislead the judge or any judicial officer by an artifice or false statement of fact or law.”
“I believe that the submission of such a false writing to the court violates an attorney’s statutory and ethical duty ‘never to seek to mislead the judge’ through the use of ‘any false statement of fact or law,’ ” Murphy wrote in his filing.
The county’s top prosecutor has tarnished the integrity of the justice system, he alleges.
“In all of this, we respectfully submit that Mr. Spitzer has disgraced himself, betrayed the victims, the justice system, and the community at large, and further sullied the esteem of the office he was elected to lead,” the filing states.
“In short, Mr. Spitzer has attempted to perpetrate a fraud on this court, and we had a clear ethical duty to provide the attached documents.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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