Thu. Jun 6th, 2024

High-level OC prosecutor dismissed from District Attorney’s Office

District Attorney Todd Spitzer said his staff ‘will not violate the Constitution and the rights of defendants in order to get convictions’

Top-level Orange County prosecutor Ebrahim Baytieh was fired Wednesday from the District Attorney’s Office after an internal investigation into withholding evidence in a murder case.

District Attorney Todd Spitzer said the withheld evidence forced him in August to request a new murder trial for a man convicted in 2010 of mutilating his victim in Sunset Beach and burning the body. Paul Gentile Smith had been serving a life term in prison without the possibility of parole for the 1988 slaying of his marijuana dealer, Robert Haugen.

Orange County sheriff’s deputies and prosecutors allegedly violated Smith’s constitutional rights by placing him in a jail cell where he was targeted by three jailhouse informants and then telling defense attorneys about only one.

“I immediately hired an independent law firm to investigate whether there was a failure by the prosecutor to properly turn over discovery and whether the prosecutor was truthful in all subsequent and related inquiries by the United States Department of Justice,” Spitzer said in a prepared statement.

The report was completed Tuesday, Feb. 8, Spitzer said, and as a result Baytieh is no longer employed by the District Attorney’s Office.

His statement did not mention Baytieh, a senior assistant district attorney, by name, but was made in response to an inquiry by the Orange County Register into Baytieh’s employment status.

“I made it unequivocally clear when I ran for Orange County District Attorney that I would not tolerate the ‘win at all costs’ mentality of the prior administration,” Spitzer said. “My prosecutors will not violate the Constitution and the rights of defendants in order to get convictions.”

Baytieh, who is running for Superior Court judge, did not return telephone messages seeking comment.

Spitzer less than a year ago publicly praised Baytieh’s ethics, referring to him as a pinnacle of integrity and an office role model in an interview with a Register reporter in which the D.A. also described Baytieh as “someone you look up to to guide you.”

Baytieh, who in 2012 was named Prosecutor of the Year by the California District Attorneys Association, prosecuted a wide range of cases — including homicides, sexual assaults, public corruption and human trafficking — before becoming a senior deputy district attorney in 2018. His candidacy for judge in the June 7 primary election has captured dozens of endorsements from local judges and lawyers.

Under then-D.A. Tony Rackauckas, Baytieh publicly pushed back against accusations that prosecutors and the Sheriff’s Department used a clandestine system of misusing jail informants. Spitzer, who made the so-called snitch scandal a focus of his campaign against Rackauckas, opted to keep Baytieh in one of the department’s most prominent positions. Baytieh later told a Register reporter that he had worked behind the scenes to create a more restrictive policy regarding the use of informants.

In the Smith case, authorities say prosecutors at the time of trial failed to provide the defense a recording of one of the jailhouse informants used in their investigation. The recording was not turned over until 10 years after the trial, when Baytieh, the prosecutor in the case, indicated he first found out about it.

Smith’s original conviction was thrown out last year because sheriff’s deputies said they would not testify if called during a hearing on the misuse of jailhouse informants in the case.

Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, Smith’s attorney, alleged that Baytieh’s conduct infected other cases.

“In the near future we will be detailing how not only was critical evidence concealed from Mr. Smith for more than a decade but how members of the prosecution team conspired to conceal this evidence from dozens of other defendants who were entitled to learn about it — all so they could ensure that our client die in prison without ever knowing what happened,” Sanders said.