Orange County DA Todd Spitzer may be the first elected prosecutor in California found to have violated a law against showing racial bias towards defendants.
A judge ruled Friday that Spitzer violated the state’s Racial Justice Act over remarks he made to other prosecutors when deciding on pursuing the death penalty against a Black defendant.
According to an internal DA memo, Spitzer raised alarm bells among senior prosecutors when, at the October 2021 meeting, he asked if the defendant had dated white women, adding “he knows many Black people who get themselves out of their bad circumstances and bad situations by only dating ‘white women.’ ”
That violated the Racial Justice Act, according to OC Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett – who issued his ruling Friday when sentencing the defendant, Jamon Buggs, to life in prison for murdering two people in Newport Beach.
The law, which took effect at the beginning of last year, says prosecutors cannot seek criminal sentences “on the basis of race, ethnicity, or national origin.”
Violations can be proven by proving the prosecutor showed racial “bias or animus towards the defendant.”
Voice of OC could not find any other cases of prosecutors being found in violation of the Racial Justice Act, after searching Google News, asking the California District Attorneys Association and NAACP, and checking with attorneys who track that law.
Leaders at one of America’s oldest civil rights groups said there’s no other way to look at Spitzer’s remarks other than as racist.
“I don’t know how else you would see it,” said David Drakeford, vice president of the NAACP’s Orange County chapter, who said he was speaking on behalf of the entire chapter.
Pointing to what he described as a bias in the DA’s office over-charging Black defendants, Drakeford said Spitzer’s racial comments are “indicative of how he’s operated with Black men and with Black people in general.”
“It didn’t surprise me that he would have said that comment,” he added.
Spitzer and his spokeswoman, Kimberly Edds, didn’t return text messages seeking his response to the ruling and the NAACP comments.
In a previous statement reacting to the ruling, Edds wrote that the judge “ruled that the defendant was treated fairly by District Attorney Spitzer at every stage of the proceeding.”
The leader of the state chapter of the NAACP says Spitzer’s remarks in the Buggs case are “blatantly racist.”
“His behavior has been drenched in racial animus and disdain for people of color. Judge Prickett also saw his blatant violation of the Racial Justice Act, and ruled accordingly,” said Rick Callender, president of the NAACP’s chapter for California and Hawaii.
“We will never be able to obtain justice in America if we allow these kinds of blatant racist behaviors to continue!” he added, reiterating his prior call for Spitzer to resign.
Under pressure from his own prosecutors after making his remarks about Buggs dating white women, Spitzer reversed himself and dropped seeking the death penalty against Buggs, who was sentenced Friday to life in prison.
Spitzer contended that was entirely appropriate for him to bring up Black men dating white women 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 several prosecutors in the room saw it differently.
According to a memo written by then-prosecutor Ebrahim Baytieh – who’s now running for judge – he and two other prosecutors from the meeting agreed that Spitzer’s remarks had to be turned over to the judge because of the Racial Justice Act,.
The lead detective in the Buggs case has also taken issue with Spitzer’s handling of the issue, writting a letter to the judge saying Spitzer ruined the death penalty case by making inappropriate racial remarks and then trying to cover it 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 on whether to seek the death penalty.
And Brenda Partch, whose son Darren Partch was murdered by Buggs, went public saying she’s convinced Spitzer abandoned the pursuit of justice for her son to cover up the racial statements he made.
Spitzer has denied the cover-up allegations.
Judge Prickett gave his ruling verbally at Friday’s sentencing hearing, according to news reports and the official court minutes of the proceeding.
As of Monday afternoon, the court’s only public record of the racial bias ruling was official notes – known as minutes – of the proceedings Friday.
“The Court finds a violation of the Racial Justice Act occurred [sic] and that an appropriate remedy has been issued,” the minutes state.
The public record doesn’t mention how the judge reached his conclusion that the law was violated.
Those minutes show Prickett talked about “the factors considered” in ruling on the Racial Justice Act violation. But the minutes do not say what factors the judge cited.
The hearing transcript would have direct quotes of what was said. But as is normal in OC Superior Court, the transcript is not available from the court because transcripts are considered the private property of court reporters.
Voice of OC asked Monday morning about getting a copy of Friday’s transcript, but did not get an answer by end of the day about how much it would cost. Such transcripts often cost hundreds of dollars to get a copy of.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.