In a remarkable statement made before reporters Friday, Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green said her office will mail out 64 letters to defense attorneys who represented clients whose cases may have been "tainted" by the involvement of disgraced former Bakersfield Police Department Detectives Damacio Diaz and Patrick Mara.
At a press conference held at the D.A.'s office in downtown Bakersfield, Green said it was her duty to inform defense attorneys that the integrity of evidence against their clients has now come into question due to the involvement of the two local cops who became criminals.
Diaz and Mara, onetime police partners at the BPD, have publicly admitted to committing various felonies while working as investigators. Some of the crimes admitted by one or both defendants have included taking bribes, distribution of large amounts of methamphetamine — some of it stolen from the BPD’s evidence room — working in partnership with a known drug dealer and other unlawful activities.
Seventeen-year and 13-year veterans of the BPD, respectively, Diaz and Mara have accepted plea deals. Diaz was sentenced earlier this month to five years in federal prison. Mara awaits sentencing on Oct. 24.
As a result of their crimes, Diaz and Mara’s credibility in cases they have investigated or in which they assisted is now tainted.
"The disgraceful behavior of Diaz and Mara has greatly impacted the Bakersfield Police Department and the people in our community," Green said. "They have brought dishonor to their badge and to our community as a whole that they were sworn to serve and protect."
While Green’s actions may be extraordinary, they are not unprecedented.
Erwin Chemerinsky, founding dean and professor at the UC Irvine School of Law, told The Californian last summer that the examination of cases handled by Diaz and Mara should be undertaken by an independent agency. In 1990s Los Angeles, he said, in the wake of the LAPD’s Rampart scandal, an independent agency was enlisted to avoid the appearance of any conflict of interest as it examined hundreds of potentially tainted cases.
"Instances of corruption like this undermine public confidence in law enforcement," Chemerinsky said. "They also raise the real possibility of individuals having been wrongly convicted."
Green said Friday she did not consider asking an outside agency to investigate.
“I was and I am extremely confident that the review my staff conducted was thorough, impartial and very fair to the defendants who were involved in these cases,” Green said.
In addition, by all indications, it appears Diaz and Mara were rogue officers who, over a period of years, acted without the knowledge of the Bakersfield Police Department. No other officers face criminal charges, she said, although five have been subject to an internal BPD investigation for possible violation of department policy.
“We will be litigating any cases in which motions for new trials or motions to withdraw pleas are filed on behalf of these defendants who receive the letters,” Green said.
In a statement emailed to The Californian on Friday, the Los Angeles law firm of Geragos & Geragos was highly critical of Green’s approach.
"We are deeply troubled by the District Attorney’s announcement today,” said Geragos attorney Ben Meiselas, who is representing the families of at least four men killed in confrontations with local law enforcement officers.
“The DA stated her office did not even consider an independent investigation,” Meiselas said. “It appears the D.A.'s office did not even conduct an investigation at all, but simply counted the number of cases that Mara and Diaz worked on and decided to ‘send letters.’
“It was also disturbing to hear that the D.A. has already pre-determined that her office would automatically oppose motions for new trials filed by defendants whose rights were likely violated by the illegal conduct of Diaz and Mara. In essence, the D.A. citing a ‘lack of prosecutorial resources,’ has shifted the burden of investigating the illegality of Diaz and Mara to the potential victims, many who have suffered dearly. This was a sham investigation and shows the urgent need for an independent investigation."
In a later interview, Meiselas argued that by only considering cases that occurred within a two- or three-year period — when the rogue officers admitted to being involved in criminal behavior — the district attorney was ignoring potential misdeeds that may go back much earlier in the careers of Mara and Diaz.
“The conduct and character of the these officers is inherently exculpatory,” Meiselas said, meaning it could be favorable to defendants in countless past cases by casting doubt on the honesty and integrity of the officer as reflected in police reports, testimony and collected physical evidence.
Green said her staff based its review on cases Diaz was involved in from 2011 to 2014 and cases Mara was involved in from 2010 to 2014.
“We based our review on when they were involved in their criminal conduct up until the point they were placed on administrative leave,” she said.
The review looked at cases in which either or both detectives played a role “beyond merely being present,” Green said. Taking witness statements, seizing evidence, and writing reports are activities that were flagged by reviewers.
Regarding Diaz, district attorney staff reviewed 32 cases involving 53 defendants. Of those, eight involved misdemeanor charges and 24 involved felony charges. Of the 32 cases, Green’s office will send letters connected to 20. Three misdemeanor cases will be dismissed.
Regarding Mara, during the period in question, the former detective wrote reports, interviewed witnesses or seized evidence in 55 cases involving 70 defendants. Of those 55 cases, 33 were felonies and 22 involved misdemeanor charges. Of the 55 cases, Green’s office will send letters connected to 44.
Most of the cases in question involve narcotics charges. However, potentially tainted cases also include charges of robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, attempted murder, prostitution, five child molestation cases, two felony child abuse cases and a few other charges.
The credibility of a police investigation is crucial in criminal cases. Most lawyers agree that reports, evidence and testimony provided by trained police officers are given a lot of weight by judges and juries, as well as by supervising D.A.s in deciding when to file charges. In addition, defense attorneys are limited in their ability to question the veracity of police officers in court.
H.A. Sala, a prominent criminal defense attorney in Bakersfield, told The Californian in June he expected the revelations regarding Diaz and Mara would have far-reaching effects, potentially involving hundreds of cases.
Sala suggested the criteria would be broader than that used by the District Attorney’s office.
"It really has broad implications to every case either one of these detectives had involvement in, either directly or indirectly,” Sala said at the time.
He could not immediately be reached on Friday.
Meanwhile, the activities of the two former detectives is having a profound impact on Kern County’s justice system.
“Honestly, it’s been a huge disruption,” Green said. “You think about all the prosecutorial resources that were spent on litigating these cases in the first place, all the attorneys in my office, the defense attorneys, the judges — and at least 100 hours have been spent on the review of these cases. We did not take this review lightly, we did not enter into it lightly.
“Then consider having to draft the letters, send out the letters and relitigate these issues,” she said. “All this for an office, my office, which has been given less prosecutorial resources this year than in any other year in the past five years.
“This is an extreme burden on my office, but it’s one, ethically, as I’ve said, we have to undertake. It’s absolutely the right thing to do.”