Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer announced on Jan. 13 that 67 cases in Orange County had their charges dropped or reduced due to mishandled evidence, as a result of an audit initiated by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
According to a press release from the DA’s office, the goal of the audit was to “identify any and all cases handled by the OCDA where a defendant’s due process rights may have been negatively impacted by having evidence collected but not booked.”
The audit, which began last year, reviewed the evidence-booking procedures of approximately 22,289 cases that had ended in conviction from March 2015 to March 2018.
Spitzer was made aware of the extent of the audit in mid-November 2019 and was given the option to drop or reduce charges for 67 cases with significant evidence booking issues in which officers booked evidence 31 or more days late, after a conviction, or not at all. Spitzer, in the press release, announced that these charges would be dropped and DNA profiles of impacted cases would be removed from the OCDA DNA Database.
Of these 67 cases, 31 cases were reviewed regarding OCSD deputy conduct that resulted in a failure to book evidence. Independent prosecutor Patrick O’Toole, who was hired by the DA’s office to review these cases, charged three deputies — Edwin Mora, Joseph Anthony Atkinson Jr. and Bryce Richmond Simpson — for writing in their reports that they booked non-photographic evidence when they had not.
“Due process is the cornerstone of our criminal justice system and is embedded within our federal and state constitutions,” the DA’s office said in a report on the audit. “The collection and preservation of evidence is a key element of procedural due process.”
The DA was originally informed about the audit by a local news reporter, although OCSD says it submitted reports to the DA and that the DA’s Office “should have known.”
The audit was begun by the OCSD in 2018 when a case had to be dropped because of missing evidence, narcotics and a pipe, which led to the investigation of 17 deputies and 544 cases involving evidence related issues.
In the DA’s report on the audit, it claimed that the DA ordered a further, more intensive search of cases that resulted in a conviction “because of the deficiencies in the Sheriff’s audits.”
Spitzer took over the audit in 2019 and appointed both Assistant District Attorneys Chris Duff and Robert Mestman, heads of the Special Prosecutions Unit (SPU) and Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) respectively, to oversee the OCSD’s response.
“In every step of this process, the DA’s office reacted to this issue consistent with the principle that, ‘The first, best, and most effective shield against injustice for an individual accused, or society in general, must be found not in the persons of defense counsel, trial judge, or appellate jurist, but in the integrity of the prosecutor,’” the OC DA’s office said in their report.
Eva Cluff is a City News Intern for the 2021 winter quarter. She can be reached at email@example.com.