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O.C.'s Capizzi Takes Hit From Busts-Gone-Bad

October 09, 1994|MARK PLATTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With 269,104 votes against no opponent in the June primary, Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi commanded more support than any other Orange County officeholder, while some prosecutors elsewhere in California were either losing their offices or barely holding onto them.

As he endorsed "three-strikes" legislation and issued tough-on-crime statements during press conferences called to announce arrests in high-profile cases, Capizzi has looked the part of the invincible lawman in a society growing ever more fearful of crime.

But in the past 10 days, Capizzi's office has suffered the biggest public embarrassments of his five-year reign--prosecutorial missteps that many say were inevitable for an office so intent on cultivating a crime-busting image that its staff sometimes cuts corners.

A week ago Friday, amid much public fanfare, his office charged an arson suspect with setting the most devastating fire in county history, only to drop the charges five days later when the Mexico-born "transient" turned out to have family in Fullerton who provided him an ironclad alibi. The family claimed, and red-faced prosecutors subsequently confirmed, that the man was serving time in a Mexican prison at the time of the Oct. 27, 1993, Laguna Beach firestorm.

The same day those charges were dropped, a deputy district attorney agreed to release another man from custody whose arrest was among those announced at yet another press conference--one called to trumpet the crackdown on Santa Ana's 6th Street gang and the arrest of more than 100 alleged drug-dealing gangsters. This time, the arrested gangster turned out to have been in a Texas prison at the time he was supposedly selling drugs to an undercover agent in Orange County.

And just two days ago came news that two more of those arrested during the Santa Ana crackdown may have been wrongly accused. One was apparently in a California prison at the time he was accused of dealing drugs in Santa Ana.

With three high-profile cases coming unraveled in the same number of days, Capizzi and his top administrators say they are reviewing the rest of the 100-plus arrests in the gang sweep. Though they do not like to file charges that later have to be dropped, officials from the district attorney's office say they don't hesitate to do the right thing when mistakes are brought to their attention.

"Unfortunately, on occasion, someone will be charged with a crime and, later, evidence will show they did not commit that crime," said Maurice Evans, chief assistant district attorney. "This is an office that has high integrity. And we are willing to stand up if we make a mistake. On these cases where someone has an alibi, we will stand up and be counted and take responsibility."

Capizzi's office has suffered other public relations setbacks in the past year, not only for what it has done, but once for what it didn't.

In the mutilation slaying last May of 23-year-old Leanora Annette Wong--another highly publicized case--it was revealed that Capizzi's office decided not to prosecute Wong's accused killer in 1993, when he was accused of rape for a fourth time.

Instead of aggressively prosecuting the fourth rape charge, which could have landed him in prison for 12 years, Orange County prosecutors elected instead to let him be returned to prison for no more than 12 months as a parole violator.

Prosecutors said that the rape case had too many holes to charge the suspect, Edward Patrick Morgan.

Shortly after his release, prosecutors now charge that Morgan sexually mutilated the 23-year-old Huntington Beach woman and strangled her.

In February, a state appeals court threw out the hard-won assault conviction of Dr. Thomas A. Gionis, the estranged husband of actor John Wayne's daughter. The reversal was based in part on prosecutor misconduct, and Capizzi's office is appealing the decision, which overturned the outcome of a lengthy second jury trial, the first one ending in a mistrial.

And in the tragic Christmas Day shooting last year of one sheriff's deputy by another, some community leaders questioned the impartiality of Capizzi's office in handling the case while others criticized him for taking the case before the county grand jury, which chose not to issue an indictment.

In that case, prosecutors say they recommended that charges be filed, but the grand jury refused. One retired deputy district attorney suggested that Capizzi's office "was able to have its cake and eat it too" by passing the blame for a controversial non-prosecution to a grand jury, whose deliberations are forever kept secret when no charges result. District attorney's officials said they made the right call by taking the case to the grand jury, even though they could have simply filed the charges directly, as they do 99% of the time.

"I wouldn't say it's been a particularly good year for him," Public Defender Ronald Y. Butler said.

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