When former Bakersfield cops Damacio Diaz and Patrick Mara became criminals and drug dealers, the work they had done as detectives became tainted with the smell of corruption.
In mid-October, Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green sent more than five dozen letters to defense attorneys informing them that they had represented clients in recent years whose cases involved one or both of the dirty detectives.
Three months after those letters were sent, the results are less than impressive.
According to the D.A.’s office, to date, not a single defense attorney has filed a motion for a new trial, or asked that a client’s plea be vacated — or filed anything on any court case involving Diaz or Mara. No lawyer has asked to meet with Assistant District Attorney Scott Spielman to talk about whether the D.A.’s office might be willing to agree to a proposed defense motion or work with the defense on any other course of action.
These things can take time, Spielman said, and defense filings may still be in the works. But the veteran prosecutor said he never really expected to see a flood of actions regarding the defendants named in Green’s letters.
“This really doesn’t surprise me,” Spielman said of the tepid response by the defense bar. “Diaz and Mara helped defendants out by not filing cases. They helped the defense.”
Certainly it’s possible, even likely, that individuals who should have been arrested were never brought to justice due to the corrupt actions of the two Bakersfield Police Department veterans.
Still, no private attorneys reached by The Californian said they have plans to take legal action on behalf of defendants who were arrested.
One attorney reached by The Californian said he had never seen Green’s letter and asked this reporter to fax him a copy.
And a number of defendants on the list who appeared in propria persona — that is, they acted as their own attorneys — could not be reached by this reporter.
Even Spielman agreed that some of the named defendants may never know that their cases were briefly spotlighted in Green’s letters. Information lost in the ether.
Three months in, the Kern County Public Defender’s office, which represented a majority of the defendants, says it is still trying to locate affected clients.
Chief Assistant Public Defender Dominic Eyherabide said in an email that the Public Defender’s office is “working on several fronts,” including reaching out to clients whose names were provided by Green.
Whether these clients will all be found and informed that cops gone bad were involved in their cases is a question that has not yet been answered.
“We are in a bit of a holding pattern now,” Eyherabide said. “As to the listed clients, we have reached out to each of them and are waiting for responses.”
Eyherabide also noted that he has requested “Brady” materials relating to the various agencies that investigated the BPD.
Following the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, a prosecutor must disclose evidence or information that would prove the innocence of the defendant or would enable the defense to more effectively impeach the credibility of government witnesses.
“As to the ‘Brady’ request, the (D.A.’s office) has advised they are attending to our request but need more time to review and respond,” Eyherabide said. “It would be premature at this point to speculate on how or whether this will mature into formal litigation in the courtroom.”
Diaz and Mara, onetime police partners at the BPD, publicly admitted to committing various felonies while working as veteran investigators. Some of the crimes admitted to 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 accepted plea deals. Each was sentenced to five years in federal prison.
As a result of their crimes, Diaz and Mara’ s credibility in cases they have investigated or in which they assisted is now in question.
Green said she was ethically bound to inform defense attorneys who represented clients whose cases included involvement by Mara or Diaz — but only during the period it was determined the pair were involved in criminal activities.
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.
The review looked at cases in which either or both detectives played a significant role, including taking witness statements, seizing evidence and writing reports.
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. Defense attorneys are limited in their ability to question the veracity of police officers.
Tony Lidgett, a private-practice criminal defense attorney in Bakersfield, received a letter from Green regarding his representation of Ramon Ramirez, who was accused in 2013 of various drug charges. Lidgett was able to get three charges dropped in exchange for a no contest plea on a fourth.
Ramirez was sentenced to six years in prison.
According to Green’s letter to Lidgett, former Detective Diaz was involved in surveillance and an interview of a witness.
Had he known at the time Diaz was dirty, the case would have ended differently, Lidgett said.
“I likely would have gotten the case dismissed,” Lidget said.
While Lidgett had no financial motivation to look into it further, he said he had an ethical obligation to look into it.
“We looked at what Diaz’s role was,” he said. “We tried to see if we could find somebody who could corroborate what Diaz said.”
A legal assistant spoke with other officers.
Lidgett found nothing to lead him to believe that further action would benefit his client.
“He’s already done his time,” Lidgett said. “He’s trying to turn his life around.”
Lidgett said it’s very hard to attack a cop’s credibility, especially in Kern County. They have protections built into the system.
He’s seen video evidence that completely discredited the word of a law enforcement officer. The officer faced no visible consequences when the video discredited his incident report, Lidgett said.
Some attorneys who handled cases on Green’s list no longer work in criminal law. At least one no longer practices law.
In 2011, private attorney Jared Thompson represented Anselmo Navejas on a drug possession charge. Navejas was found guilty in a jury trial and was sentenced to two years.
Former Detective Mara “wrote the report, found the money, and seized the money and drugs,” according to Green’s letter.
Thompson also looked into the case again, but could find nothing to hang his hat on.
“One of those letters and two dollars will get you a cup of coffee,” he said of the D.A.’s letters.
“The letters are more or less a cop-out,” Thompson said. “It puts the onus on the convicted defense to go back and seek relief.”
The poisoned fruit in these cases originated from the law enforcement side. Shouldn’t their side have the responsibility to clean up the mess?
Thompson suggested the D.A.’s office form a “conviction integrity unit” to review problematic cases such as the Diaz and Mara cases. Those units could then join with the defense to initiate action in the courts.
“They should do the work and then contact the defense attorney of record,” he said.
Spielman at the D.A.’s office disagreed.
“No one is going to leave it to me to decide when to pursue it,” he said.
And it’s worth noting that both the D.A.’s and Public Defender’s offices have been operating on reduced budgets due to a fiscal crisis faced by the County of Kern.
The question now hanging over the whole affair is will any of this information benefit defendants.
Early on, some observers had suggested the inquiry could raise red flags on hundreds of cases. Others predicted the outcome — in motions for new trials and vacated convictions — would be much more modest.
But no one predicted nothing would happen.