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Rising Stars in D.A.'s Office Face the Perils of Success

Prosecutors: Many are sent off to the suburbs. Are such moves normal transfers--or political put-downs?

February 01, 1997|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

David Conn's 18th-floor office at the Criminal Courts Building came complete with one of the few perks a prosecutor can afford, a swell view of the busy city below.

And if anything testifies to the new place Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti has assigned for Conn in the pecking order, it's the view from the courthouse in Norwalk, where Conn is being transferred.

There, Conn will be able to take in a pancake house, a movie theater and a parking garage. Quite a comedown for the deputy district attorney who successfully prosecuted the Menendez brothers for murder and is widely considered one of Los Angeles' most able prosecutors.

The transfer, effective Monday, is a move Conn neither solicited nor wants. It has generated intense ire in an office already beset with the considerable ill will generated by last year's elections. And it raises a fundamental question about the intersection of politics and justice in Los Angeles:

In an office dogged by criticism that it can't win the cases that capture the spotlight, why is it that those deputies who are proven winners in high-profile cases don't always go on to do more headline-generating cases--and regularly end up toiling in relative obscurity in the suburbs?

Is it because, as top management at the D.A.'s office frequently asserts, the branches are just as deserving of top-flight talent as the courthouse downtown? Or is it that rising stars who gain public prominence are perceived as political threats who must be exiled?

"There's nothing wrong with sending people to branch offices," said John K. Van de Kamp, a former Los Angeles County district attorney and ex-state attorney general.

But, he noted, "it is curious that there's been a rash of these things."

"The question," he added, "is whether these are punitive transfers."

In recent years, the winners of some of the office's biggest cases have enjoyed a brief moment in the limelight and then been handed a map to the suburbs--particularly if they expressed political ambition.

For instance, Sterling "Ernie" Norris, who successfully prosecuted "Freeway Killer" William Bonin in 1982 for murder, has not been assigned to the highest-profile cases since. After challenging Garcetti in the 1992 elections, he was reassigned to Pasadena.

P. Philip Halpin, who in 1989 prosecuted Richard Ramirez of the "Night Stalker" serial murders, is based in the San Fernando branch, where he decides what charges to bring in cases filed there.

Dinko Bozanich and Lea Purwin D'Agostino successfully prosecuted the so-called "Alphabet Bomber," Muharem Kurbegovic, of planting a bomb in 1974 at Los Angeles International Airport that killed three people and injured 36 others.

Bozanich, one of the state's leading experts on the insanity defense, is now in Norwalk.

D'Agostino, who often notes that she also was the first female prosecutor in Los Angeles to put a murderer on Death Row (but who unsuccessfully prosecuted the so-called "Twilight Zone" case in the 1980s), is in Van Nuys--and has been since shortly after she ran unsuccessfully for district attorney in the 1988 elections.

Now it's Conn's turn.

This week, as he stuffed plaques and family pictures into boxes, Conn reflected on those before him who had been ordered to pack up, and said: "Nothing changes."

Indeed, Garcetti himself was once exiled from the 18th-floor corridors of power. In 1988, when Garcetti was then-Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner's second-in-command, Reiner demoted Garcetti without explanation and ultimately dispatched him to Torrance.

Some current and former prosecutors insist a case can be made that the suburbs aren't really so bad.

"We do have cases throughout the county that are just as important [as those downtown]," Bozanich said. For instance, when photographer Charles Rathbun was tried and convicted last year of murdering model Linda Sobek, it was in the Torrance courthouse.

Robert Philibosian, who served as district attorney in 1983 and 1984, added: "One could take the view that everybody has their day in the sun but that everybody also has to be a good soldier and go where they're assigned--and, once they're there, hopefully transfer their talents to the people in the branch offices, which assuredly are not 'the sticks' to the people served by those branches. They are entitled to top-notch prosecutors."

But, responded Norris and others, the Sobek case is the exception, not the rule. And the career path for prime talent at the D.A.'s office usually means working downtown--because that's where many of the most complex and high-profile cases are handled.

Conn, for instance, had been based downtown for more than 15 years. He successfully prosecuted serial killer Bill Bradford. He won convictions in the so-called "Cotton Club" case stemming from the killing of entertainment impresario Roy Radin. Last March, in the Menendez brothers retrial, he won murder convictions--muting criticism that the office couldn't win when the world was watching.

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