Orange County DA Todd Spitzer stands in front of camera crews during an interview on March 23, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

One of the nation’s oldest civil rights groups is criticizing DA Todd Spitzer for presiding over a criminal justice system the group says systematically discriminates against people of color.

On Tuesday, the OC chapter of the NAACP said it stands “in solidarity” with calls for Spitzer to resign that have been made by the group’s state chapter and others.

“We know Black people in this county are not treated fairly according to the law,” the chapter said in a press statement sent out on Tuesday.

The statement says NAACP members have been attending court hearings where people of color “were overcharged and falsely accused of many charges brought against them because the police kept hidden or distorted the facts at the time of their arrest.”

“Some of them were held in jail for an excessively prolonged period of time because their bail was set far beyond a limit that fits their actual offense,” the statement continued.

“Signing off on police reports that leave out critical evidence in the case of the accused person is a strategy but not a legal one.”

[Click here to read the NAACP chapter’s statement.]

In response, Spitzer issued a statement saying he’s committed to equality under the law and pursuing justice without regard to race.

“As the elected District Attorney, I have worked tirelessly to ensure justice is pursued in a fair and equitable manner regardless of race, origin, or religion,” Spitzer wrote.

“The Orange County Chapter of the NAACP (NAACP-OC) stood by my side along with many other likeminded members of our community as I successfully fought a ridiculously lenient sentence for a white supremacist who attacked a pregnant black woman and threatened to kill her baby,” he added.

The local NAACP statement was signed by the chapter’s president, Wellington “Coach” Bennett, and its Criminal Justice Committee chairman, David Drakeford.

In an interview, Drakeford told Voice of OC the chapter stands “in solidarity with the state president of the NAACP” who has called for Spitzer’s “immediate resignation” over racially charged remarks Spitzer has acknowledged making when deciding on seeking the death penalty against a Black man.

“We can’t continue to remain silent,” Drakeford told Voice of OC.

Spitzer says the local NAACP leaders have seen firsthand that he’s committed to equal justice.

“Through multiple meetings on a variety of cases and issues within our community, Mr. Bennet and Mr. Drakeford know better than most my sincere commitment to fighting for equal justice in Orange County,” Spitzer said in his statement.

“As prosecutors we do not determine who is arrested in this county, but we do review each case thoroughly and fairly to determine whether the facts of a case can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law,” he continued.

“The practice of law relies on the facts and the law and only the facts and the law.”

Spitzer has faced a string of disclosures in recent weeks about alleged racial bias by him and his administration – including his remarks in the death penalty meeting and an ACLU analysis that found Spitzer’s office is continuing to perpetuate “vast racial disparities” in who gets prosecuted for crimes.

In mid-February, documents emerged showing Spitzer was accused by his staff of making inappropraite racial remarks when deciding whether to seek the death penalty against a Black defendant, Jamon Rayon Buggs.

Spitzer later acknowledged that at the Oct. 1 death penalty meeting, he asked prosecutors about the race of the defendant’s 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.”

In a letter to the judge, the lead detective in the Buggs case wrote Spitzer ruined the death penalty case by making the racial remarks and then trying to cover them up.

Newport Beach Detective Court Depweg wrote to the judge that he had been told by multiple current and former DA officials that Spitzer “made an unsolicited, derogatory, and racist comment about Black men/persons” at the Oct. 1 meeting.

Ahead of an all-staff meeting Spitzer held last month, DA prosecutors put forward scathing questions to Spitzer about whether he’s destroyed criminal cases and faith in the justice system by injecting race and politics into law enforcement decisions.

“In recent media interviews…you refuse to recognize that your comments were inappropriate, offensive and racist,” the prosecutors wrote, referring to Spitzer’s comments in the Buggs case.

“In fact, you doubled down on your comments as appropriate,” the prosecutors wrote in their letter, which included 7 pages of detailed questions.

Spitzer has declined to publicly say how he responded to the questions.

Voice of OC first broke the news about the existence of Spitzer’s racially charged remarks in the death penalty meeting.

Amid the criticism of his racial comments, Spitzer in recent days has posted videos of local African-American residents vouching for his integrity.

“I’ve spent my entire career fighting for equal justice in Orange County. In 2000, I fought for Kathy McCullough to become the first African American mayor in Orange County,” Spitzer wrote in the introduction to one of the videos.

The video featured former Santa Ana Councilwoman Alberta Christy describing Spitzer speaking up for McCullough’s turn as mayor after her Lake Forest City Council had refused to appoint her to the position.

The ACLU analysis – released earlier this month – found that Black people are much more likely to face criminal charges in Orange County than the rest of the population – and less likely to be offered diversion programs to avoid jail time.

The group cited figures that Black people are 2% of OC’s population but almost 6% of those who face criminal charges.

While the ACLU requested data on criminal charges, Spitzer would only provide numbers from his predecessor Tony Rackauckas’ time in office – despite Spitzer promising to be more open than Rackauckas – according to the ACLU.

So the civil rights group had to instead rely on court data that Voice of OC obtained and published last year.

Among other measures, the ACLU called on Spitzer to commit to “blind charging,” which bans prosecutors from seeing the race of potential defendants before making a decision on whether to charge them with a crime.

In response, Spitzer criticized the ACLU study – saying their report is part of a campaign that would endanger Orange County residents by weakening prosecutions in the style of LA and San Francisco.

“This report,” Spitzer said, “is the ACLU’s playbook for the failed policies of Los Angeles and San Francisco, resulting in soaring homicide and violent crime rates.”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

•••

Start each day informed with our free email newsletter. Be alerted when news breaks with our free text messages.

And since you’ve made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.