The Californian on Monday obtained copies of the 64 letters that Kern County’s district attorney has sent to area defense attorneys whose clients’ criminal cases may have been “tainted” by the involvement of two former Bakersfield Police Department detectives.
The letters include the names of 84 defendants and their attorneys, case numbers and information detailing the level of involvement of Damacio Diaz and Patrick Mara, who each have been sentenced to five years in prison.
Because Diaz and Mara have admitted to using their positions as police officers to steal narcotics from drug dealers and sell them through a third party for their own personal gain, the integrity of the evidence in the scores of cases has now been called into question.
The affected cases include five child molestation and two felony child abuse cases. Other potentially tainted cases include a charge of attempted murder, robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, prostitution, and several narcotics-related crimes.
In one example sent to Bakersfield attorney Benjamin Greene, the letter refers to a 2011 case in which Greene’s client, Angel Cardenas, agreed to accept a plea deal in exchange for pleading no contest to four felony drug counts.
The description of then-Detective Diaz’s involvement in the investigation is brief, but may raise questions about just how honest and diligent Diaz was in fulfilling his duty as a police officer in this case.
“This letter is to notify you,” the district attorney’s letter states, “that former Bakersfield police officer Damacio Diaz was present at searches, interviewed defendants, and booked the narcotics and cash.”
Green made it clear at a press conference earlier this month that she has a responsibility, a duty, to inform the defense in cases where evidence that may be advantageous to a defendant is discovered. Indeed, constitutional due process holds that a prosecutor’s duty to seek justice takes priority over her responsibility to prosecute those accused of a crime.
“This is an extreme burden on my office,” the district attorney said at the press conference, “but it’s one, ethically, as I’ve said, we have to undertake. It’ s absolutely the right thing to do.”
Indeed, some of those convicted may still be behind bars.
Kern County Public Defender Konrad Moore, whose office handled most of the cases, said Monday in an email that the work required to investigate and mitigate the damage and destruction caused by two corrupt police officers represents an enormous burden.
“We received a list of several dozen cases in which Bakersfield Police Department officers Mara and Diaz were significantly involved which resulted in criminal convictions,” Moore said. “Clients who plead guilty or no contest may have done so because they were fearful that no one would believe them against the word of a Bakersfield Police Department officer.”
But now the word and even the testimony of those officers has been besmirched.
“Our first step,” Moore said, “will be to pull and review each file and contact our former clients who suffered convictions.
“The real test will be the extent to which the district attorney moves to vacate or joins us to vacate convictions where officer Mara or Diaz was significantly involved.”
Many other local defense attorneys are expected to receive letters from the D.A.
Veteran Bakersfield defense attorney Ronald Carter has two cases on the list, but when he was reached Monday afternoon, Carter said he had not yet seen the letters.
One of the letters addresses the case of Haroon Pimental, who was arrested along with two others in 2014 on suspicion of attempted murder, torture, assault with a deadly weapon, assault causing great bodily injury, mayhem, felony child abuse and conspiracy to commit crimes.
The investigation began after officials at Kern Medical Center contacted police in connection with possible child abuse of a 2-year-old child, who was brought in with life-threatening injuries.
After obtaining a search warrant, police searched the house where the child lived. They found a 5-year-old who also had been abused.
Pimental pleaded to attempted murder in exchange for the dismissal of seven other felony counts. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Carter said he would have to examine the case more closely before determining a course of action, but his initial reaction was that the new information would likely not move him to ask for a new trial.
According to Green’s letter, Mara was the author of the search warrant, and he seized and booked evidence. But Carter’s initial feeling was that the weight of evidence in the case did not depend solely on the veracity of the detective.
“I don’t at this point see how this new information would affect my client,” he said.
However, in cases that depended on the word of one or both of the detectives — without “a pile” of other evidence to back them up — Carter says it may very well be appropriate to either ask for a new trial or work with the D.A.’s office to have the case dismissed and have the client’s record expunged.
But as an attorney who has practiced law for 30 years, Carter said the examples of Diaz and Mara point to a much larger problem.
“When a police officer gets on the stand, every juror is going to give that police officer the benefit of the doubt,” Carter said. “If he’s lying and we can’t trap him in the lie because we don’t have the information necessary to trap him, it’s going to get by.
“And that’s probably more destructive to the system than a couple of dirty cops padding their pockets.”
Bakersfield attorney Daniel Rodriguez has years of experience in both criminal and civil practice. Reached Monday evening, Rodriguez was asked whether it’s possible the Diaz-Mara debacle means Kern County could see civil lawsuits as a result.
“Yes, it does,” Rodriguez said.
“There’s always the possibility someone has been wrongly convicted,” he said, “because of lies or misconduct committed by these police officers.”
But maybe more importantly, he said, the criminal justice system itself has been damaged.
“This really shakes us to our cores,” he said, “when we as a community find out that police officers are corrupt.
“It isn’t a mistake,” he said of the actions of Diaz and Mara. “It’s a betrayal.
“It’s hard to place confidence in our police force when they’re doing the kinds of things they arrest people for.”