In an attempt to defuse an issue that could hurt him in the 1990 governor's race, Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp now says he made a mistake in not prosecuting Angelo Buono in 1981 on murder charges in the Hillside Strangler case.
"We made an error in that case and I take full responsibility," Van de Kamp said Friday in a telephone interview.
Previously, Van de Kamp had defended his decision as Los Angeles district attorney to prosecute Buono on sex rather than murder charges. Buono was subsequently convicted of murder after then-Atty. Gen. George Deukmejian's office stepped in to prosecute the case.
In all, the deaths of 10 young women and girls were part of the Hillside Strangler case, so named because some of the victims were strangled and their bodies dumped on hillsides near downtown Los Angeles in 1977 and 1978.
A made-for-television movie on the Buono case shown earlier this week renewed interest in the subject and led a Sacramento political columnist to write Thursday that Buono could be for Van de Kamp what convicted murderer Willie Horton was for 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis.
Horton committed crimes after getting a weekend pass from prison under a Massachusetts furlough law that Dukakis, as governor, did not seek to change until community groups took up the cause.
Then, in his presidential campaign, Dukakis was slow to respond when the Republicans hammered him on the furlough issue, accusing him of being soft on crime and unresponsive to crime victims. It served to raise doubts in the general public about Dukakis, who was still not well-known even after winning the Democratic nomination.
Van de Kamp said in the interview Friday that the Buono case "is an issue that has been talked about (in political circles) for three or four months and one that some people believed would be a major campaign issue. I felt it should not fester. . . . As long as you tackle it head-on, you're OK. If Dukakis had tackled the Willie Horton thing head-on, things might have been different.
Tough-Minded but Wrong
"As district attorney, my office made hundreds of prosecutor judgments that were accurate and tough-minded. This one (Buono) was also tough-minded but it was an error."
Advisers to U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson, now seeking the Republican gubernatorial nomination, have suggested that Van de Kamp's decision not to prosecute Buono for murder will find its way into TV commercials should Van de Kamp be the Democratic nominee for governor next year.
And a Van de Kamp adviser, who requested anonymity, said he thought former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein might use the Buono issue in the Democratic primary next year should she decide to run against Van de Kamp. She is exploring such a race.
"People are raising this," said Van de Kamp press secretary Duane Peterson, "and there are some political opponents who think this is a knockout blow. It is not. But Mr. Van de Kamp believed it was time to take the issue on head-up and end the discussion."
Thus, Van de Kamp wrote a letter Thursday to Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters who had written that the TV movie would remind voters of Van de Kamp's attempt to dismiss the murder charges against Buono in 1981.
In his letter to the Bee, Van de Kamp wrote in part: "In hindsight it is clear I was wrong in my assessment of the strength of the evidence. But any suggestion that this error points to an unwillingness to aggressively prosecute criminals--including death penalty cases--is wrong."
Concentrated on Sex Crimes
Van de Kamp also explained in the letter that when he decided not to prosecute Buono for murder in 1981, he and his staff believed they had a better chance of "keeping Buono off the street" by convicting him of sex crimes--including pimping and oral sodomy--while they developed a better case on the murder charges.
But Superior Court Judge Ronald M. George refused to dismiss the homicide counts against Buono, so Van de Kamp turned the case over to Deukmekjian, and state prosecutors ultimately persuaded a jury to convict Buono of murder on nine of 10 counts in 1983.
The first break in the case came when Buono's cousin, Kenneth Bianchi, pleaded guilty to the murders of five of the 10 victims and implicated Buono.
But Bianchi then began changing his story. Van de Kamp said Friday that this made his staff uneasy about their chances of convicting Buono of murder. If they lost, they argued, then the defendant's protection against "double jeopardy" would prevent them from later convicting Buono of murder should new evidence surface.
Thus, they recommended--and Van de Kamp agreed--that they dismiss the murder charges and instead prosecute Buono for sex crimes.
"We believed we could keep Buono off the street--not forever but for a number of years--by prosecuting for sex crimes," Van de Kamp said.