The San Diego County district attorney's office filed a legal challenge Monday to a secret court proceeding in the case of two brothers accused in the execution-style slayings of three men in a San Diego auto body shop.
Prosecutors allege that defense attorneys for Hector and Ronaldo Ayala violated court rules, legal ethics and the public's due process rights by persuading Superior Court Judge David M. Gill to exclude a representative of the district attorney's office from a hearing Sept. 15.
In court papers filed late Monday afternoon, prosecutors also say that it is "misconduct for a judge to make a decision in a criminal case without giving to the prosecutor adequate notice and an opportunity to be heard." But Deputy Dist. Atty. Peter Lehman said the district attorney's office did not mean to suggest that Gill had engaged in misconduct by holding the hearing.
"I think that the defense attorneys led the judge to make an order which we think is not correct," Lehman said.
Elisabeth Semel, defense attorney for Ronaldo Ayala, declined to answer questions about the hearing. She said Gill had ordered the proceedings closed and the record of the hearing sealed. But Semel insisted that the defense had complied with court rules governing proceedings held outside the hearing of the opposing side.
According to Steve Casey, a spokesman for the district attorney's office, prosecutors were not notified of the hearing and learned of it only because a deputy passed by the courtroom where the proceedings were being held.
Deputy Dist. Atty. William Woodward, who is prosecuting the case, entered the courtroom. But, at Semel's request, Gill ordered him to leave. A deputy city attorney was present for the hearing representing the San Diego Police Department, which he identified as the "real party of interest" in the matter.
The district attorney's office contends it should have been given an opportunity to challenge the secrecy of the proceedings, as a matter of "fundamental fairness."
"We think the public has a right to know that, in cases of this magnitude, the defense is attempting to make end runs around the rights of the people to participate in those actions that are of interest to the people," Lehman said.
In a celebrated case 10 years ago, the chief deputy in the district attorney's office was upbraided by an appellate court for contacting a Superior Court judge about a sentencing matter without informing the defense. Lehman acknowledged Monday that the case has remained "a sore point" with prosecutors.