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Trials of the Prosecution

August 28, 1988|STEPHEN FARBER and MARC GREEN

SEATED IN A small anteroom at the radio station KABC, "Twilight Zone" prosecutor Lea Purwin D'Agostino and defense attorneys Leonard Levine and Eugene Trope are about to engage in yet another heated post-mortem on the case. As they wait to join moderator Michael Jackson on the air, however, the self-advertised "Dragon Lady" and her one-time courtroom adversaries are chatting convivially.

"How's your mother, Leonard?" inquires D'Agostino, who once worked as the social director of a Marina del Rey singles club. "I know someone she might like. Is she dating?" His widowed mother is currently seeing a very nice gentleman, Levine assures her, before the three lawyers are ushered into Jackson's studio, where the conversation turns more vituperative. D'Agostino may have lost the case in court, but she continues to argue it on the talk-show circuit, excoriating those who suggest that she bungled the prosecution with tactical errors and self-promoting theatrics. Unlike the defense attorneys, who collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, D'Agostino has suffered a number of setbacks since her loss in the courtroom. She challenged her boss, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, in the June primary, but despite a hard-fought campaign earned a meager 13% of the vote.

On Aug. 1, D'Agostino was told that she was being transferred out of the career criminal unit of the district attorney's downtown office and being reassigned as a calendar deputy in the Van Nuys office. She considers her new job a demotion and calls the move "quite retaliatory" on Reiner's part.

According to Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Gilbert Garcetti, however, D'Agostino initiated a move to Van Nuys previously, but the position she asked for was not available. "She was then assigned to a job she considers a less prestigious position, but I feel very strongly that it was not a demotion," Garcetti says. "Most of our 800 attorneys work in calendar. She is not getting any less pay." He adds that D'Agostino is no longer allowed to comment on the case as the D.A.'s official spokesperson.

D'Agostino makes it clear that she does not view Van Nuys as the end of the trail. She remains active in Republican politics and indicates that she plans to run again for district attorney.

Ironically, D'Agostino's fall from grace and her charges of retaliatory treatment parallel the fate of Gary Kesselman, whom she replaced as the "Twilight Zone" prosecutor. During the trial, D'Agostino engaged in an acrimonious public feud with her predecessor.

Kesselman, the prosecutor when the initial indictments were handed down, had been removed from the case in the wake of a controversy surrounding a raid on a Latin dance club of which he was part-owner. In early 1985, he was reassigned to what he has described as a pencil-pushing post in the district attorney's complaints division.

In what was probably the most bizarre turn in the entire "Twilight Zone" trial, Kesselman was called as a witness for the defense. On the stand, he suggested that D'Agostino was so determined to have him corroborate the testimony from a key prosecution witness that he felt she was pressuring him to commit perjury. Many courtroom observers believed that Kesselman's testimony irrevocably undermined D'Agostino's credibility and may have played a major role in her losing the case.

After the trial, Kesselman filed a $7-million federal lawsuit against the county, charging that D'Agostino and her supervisors had attempted to "harass, intimidate and discredit" him because of his refusal to back the witness. A month later, he was arrested in the company of a prostitute by police vice officers and charged with lewd conduct. (In April, he pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of disturbing the peace.) Soon after his arrest he was fired by Reiner.

"The D.A.'s office declared war on me because I had the audacity not to lie in the 'Twilight Zone' case," Kesselman says. Today he is appealing the district court's dismissal of his lawsuit, and says he will challenge the D.A.'s legal immunity in the situation. He has taken a job with a Pasadena law firm and is trying, in his words, "to put my life back together again."

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