The lead detective in one of Orange County’s most high-profile murder cases is accusing DA Todd Spitzer of ruining a death penalty case by making inappropriate racial remarks and then trying to cover it up.
Newport Beach Lt. Court Depweg wrote to Judge Gregg L. Prickett, in a letter obtained Thursday by Voice of OC, stated that because of Spitzer’s remarks, all communications between the prosecutors and police department had been severed in the case.
Detective Depweg expressed disgust to Judge Prickett that because of Spitzer’s comments and the ensuing actions to cover them up, the death penalty had been taken off the table – all without notifying the victims’ families.
“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,’ ” Depweg wrote.
“In my twenty plus years of law enforcement experience, I had never heard of an entire district attorney unit being removed from communicating with the lead agency in the prosecution of a homicide,” he added.
Depweg said he’s been told by multiple current and former DA officials that Spitzer “made an unsolicited, derogatory, and racist comment about Black men/persons” at an Oct. 1 meeting on whether to seek the death penalty against Jamon Rayon Buggs, who is Black.
Spitzer has acknowledged making a statement about Black men dating white women during the meeting, but says it was appropriate in the context of the death penalty discussion.
Yet prosecutors who were in the room considered it inappropriate to bring race into the death penalty deliberations, according to internal memos obtained by Voice of OC.
Buggs is accused of fatally shooting two people – Wendi Miller of Costa Mesa and Darren Partch of Newport Beach – in Partch’s Newport Beach apartment in 2019, and then showing up at an Irvine apartment with a gun while looking for someone connected to his ex-girlfriend.
Several prosecutors – including the lead one on the case – determined that Spitzer’s comments needed to be disclosed to a judge as evidence of possible racial bias, under a new state law requiring disclosure to defense attorneys.
Judge Pricket is currently deciding whether to turn the memos over to Buggs’ attorneys.
Spitzer had given an extremely unusual order for everyone in the room on Oct. 1 to not discuss the case with anyone, including the police department that investigated the case, Depweg wrote in his letter.
And the DA took the death penalty off the table without notifying the victims’ families, the detective wrote, calling it an unconscionable way to treat victims.
“This was completely inappropriate to the victims’ families, to Mr. Buggs, and to the police department for the people responsible for representing the people to act this way,” Depweg wrote.
Asked for his response to the letter, Spitzer issued a statement speaking to Depweg’s concerns about a lack of communication with the police department, but not the cover-up allegations or how he treated the victim’s families.
“The District Attorney’s Office was very limited in what we could say because we had already gone to the judge and the issue was being litigated in Court,” Spitzer said in a statement provided by his spokeswoman Kimberly Edds.
“It is completely understandable that there would be some confusion by other parties because the ongoing litigation prevented us from discussing details of the proceedings.”
Edds didn’t have an answer when asked if Spitzer would comment about the cover-up allegations, and why the victims’ families apparently were not informed that he decided against the death penalty, despite requirements under Marsy’s Law.
Instead, Edds sent a statement about the timing of when the DA disclosed memos to the judge.
Spitzer has championed himself as a co-author of the state’s Marsy’s Law, which requires prosecutors to notify victims about major changes in how their cases are handled.
Spitzer said he was willing to talk to Newport Beach police about the case but that no one called.
“When my head of homicide expressed to me that Newport Beach police had questions about the status of the case and asked if I would take a phone call, I said told [sic] him they could call me anytime,” Spitzer wrote in a statement to Voice of OC, which did not address the cover-up allegations.
“No one ever called me.”
Following news reports Wednesday about his statements, and calls from the county Democratic Party and his opponent Peter Hardin to resign over the issue, Spitzer released his own four-page memo offering his opinion on the case.
In his memo, Spitzer acknowledged that at the Oct. 1 death penalty meeting, he asked prosecutors about the race of the defendants’ former girlfriends and said he had “seen Black men date White women in certain circles in order to have others around them be more accepting.”
But Spitzer contends that was entirely appropriate for him to bring up when discussing whether to seek the death penalty, because he “simply was exploring [the defendant’s] ability to identify, properly or not, the race of the female victim in that moment before he executed two victims.”
Yet Spitzer’s comments were apparently not seen as appropriate by other prosecutors in the room, at least one of whom wrote a memo that has now been obtained by media outlets.
In a Dec. 3 memo, high-ranking prosecutor Ebrahim Baytieh – whom Spitzer fired last week – said the DA was called out by himself and the lead prosecutor on the case when Spitzer brought up race at the death penalty decision meeting two months earlier.
When discussing the defendant’s prior domestic violence history, according to Baytieh’s memo, Spitzer asked about the past victims’ race and made a generalization about Black men, before being challenged by prosecutors who later said those kinds of remarks had to be disclosed to defense attorneys under a new state law.
“I stated that the race of the victims is completely irrelevant and it will be inappropriate for the OCDA to consider or give any weight to the race of the victims,” Baytieh wrote in his memo.
But Spitzer saw it differently.
“DA Spitzer stated that he disagreed and he knows many black people who get themselves out of their bad circumstances and bad situations by only dating ‘white women,’ ” Baytieh wrote.
Baytieh – who oversaw special prosecutions at the DA’s office as a senior assistant DA – then pushed back again, according to his memo.
“I then specifically stated that we should not under any circumstances give any weight or even discuss the race of the victims when we are deciding about the appropriate punishment to seek because, among other legal and ethical reasons, doing so implicates the recently signed Racial Justice Act (AB 2542),” Baytieh wrote.
Spitzer responded with a story about a Black man he once knew, according to the memo.
“DA Spitzer then stated that while he was a student in college, he knew as a matter of fact that one of his fellow black students who lived in the same location as DA Spitzer only dated ‘white women,’ and that DA Spitzer knew for sure that this black student did so on purpose to get himself out of his bad circumstances and situations.”
Later in December, Baytieh wrote that the DA’s office has a legal obligation to turn his memo about the meeting over to a judge to decide whether it has to be disclosed to the defense, under a law that requires prosecutors to turn over any evidence of possible racial bias in the handling of a case.
“In my opinion and in my legal judgment, the most prudent course of action, and the right thing to do, is for our office to discover to the defense attorneys the attached memo documenting the discussion in question,” Baytieh wrote in a Dec. 22 memo to Spitzer and Spitzer’s top deputy, Shawn Nelson.
Baytieh said he was guided by a Supreme Court ruling: “The prudent prosecutor will resolve doubtful questions in favor of disclosure.”
“By doing so, our office will be in full compliance with our discovery obligations under the Racial Justice Act as well as other statutory and constitutional mandates.”
Baytieh wrote that the prosecutor assigned to the case – as well as that prosecutor’s supervisor – agreed with his analysis.
A few weeks later, Spitzer pulled Baytieh and the other prosecutors who heard his alleged racial remarks off the case, assigned it to a new prosecutor, said he was not going to seek the death penalty and ordered those who were at the Oct. 1 meeting to not to discuss the case with the new prosecutor.
Those who were at the meeting – known as the Special Circumstances Committee – “are recused and walled off from any involvement in People V. Buggs,” Spitzer wrote in a Jan. 26 memo reviewed by Voice of OC.
Spitzer later announced he would not seek the death penalty.
As for Baytieh’s characterization of his remarks, Spitzer says it’s nothing more than “an act of pure desperation by a prosecutor who knew” he was being investigated for misconduct in a separate case, and “was willing to do anything to protect himself, even fabricating facts to embarrass the District Attorney.”
To further back up his contention that his remarks were a non-issue, Spitzer said no one – including Baytieh – raised concerns about his Oct. 1 comments until months later, just as the election calendar is heating up.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.