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L.A. County's Dual Standard of Justice Marches On

January 11, 1998|Charles L. Lindner | Charles L. Lindner is past president of the Los Angeles Criminal Bar Assn

Former Superior Court Judge George W. Trammell III is the fortunate beneficiary of "insider justice." He's been spared a potentially embarrassing and harmful trial. But what makes the D.A.'s rejection of a Trammell prosecution especially outrageous is that it implicitly repudiates another judge's findings that the "victim" was telling the truth.

Orange County Superior Judge Frank F. Fasel, assigned by the Judicial Council, conducted a hearing into Trammell's relationship with a defendant on trial in his courtroom. Last July, he found that Trammell, a senior criminal judge with 25 years on the bench, pressured Pifen Lo, a woman whom he had tried and placed on probation, to have sex with him.

In July 1996, Trammell had tried her husband, Ming Ching Jin, and the family baby sitter, Yu Ching Chu, on charges of kidnapping and robbery. Both Jin and Chu were convicted and faced life sentences without possibility of parole. Lo had pleaded guilty to lesser charges in the case and, over the objections of the prosecution, had been sentenced by Trammell, in January 1996, to five years' probation.

According to Fasel's report, Trammel had summoned Lo, in September 1996, to his chambers. It should be noted that the likelihood of a defendant having a one-on-one encounter with his or her trial judge in chambers is about as frequent as the passage of Halley's comet.

In any case, according to Fasel, Trammell told Lo that if she wanted her husband, Jin, out of jail (he was awaiting sentencing), she would have to consent to having sex with him. A few days later, Trammel and Lo had sex at the judge's house, Fasel wrote in his "findings of fact" issued last May 30.

Fasel ordered a new trial for Jin and Chu.

Trammell resigned his judgeship in January 1997, after investigators began looking into his relationship with Lo. He also resigned from the State Bar, thereby precluding any investigation of his alleged misconduct by the State Bar Court. The Commission on Judicial Performance is investigating his case, but is restrained by the fact that Trammell has resigned with his judicial pension vested. The commission may attempt to remove Trammell's pension, but such action might face constitutional roadblocks.

This is the second time the district attorney has refused to file charges against Trammell. The D.A. first indicated last March that no charges would be filed, but Fasel's findings prompted a review of that decision. The results of that review were disclosed late in the afternoon on the day after New Year's, when media presence would be minimal, at best.

In arguing against prosecution, the district attorney said that Lo's testimony before Fasel cannot be corroborated. Trammell only has said that his relationship with Lo was amiable, not sexual.

The great irony in reading Deputy Dist. Atty. Ronald H. Carroll's memorandum rejecting a criminal filing against Trammell is that it reads like a defense lawyer's brief. Carroll enumerates every conceivable reason for why Trammell's defense counsel could destroy the prosecution's case. Absent the D.A.'s letterhead, Carroll's memorandum could have been written in the public defender's office.

Among the reasons not to prosecute Trammell, one is particularly noteworthy. The memo asserts that Lo is a convicted felon (Trammell having given her felony probation) and, therefore, not credible. This "convicted felon" reason is certainly interesting, since the district attorney's office regularly uses convicted felons as witnesses in prosecutions. In fact, the D.A. recycles its felonious snitches to testify over and over again.

Fasel found that Trammell pressured Lo to submit to acts of sexual intercourse in exchange for a promised official act of mercy on behalf of Jin. Fasel could not have reached this conclusion lightly with respect to a fellow judge. If true, Trammell would be guilty of rape under color of governmental authority.

For some reason, the district attorney's office minimized the gravity of Fasel's findings, challenged Lo's credibility--despite audio tapes on which Trammell strongly implies repeated intercourse with Lo--and set aside a wealth of other information, including Trammell's correspondence with a woman state prisoner who called herself "'Pifen and George's Love Counselor," and gifts given to Trammell.

The district attorney's unwillingness to prosecute Trammell is totally inconsistent with its aggressive stance in other sexual assault cases. The D.A. routinely files charges where there are no physical injuries to the victim, even when the victim is a prostitute or a convicted felon. It vigorously prosecutes charges of "'date rape" in which the question of whether the victim consented is extraordinarily thin, and it regularly tries rape cases in which there is ample history of previous consensual sex between the putative victim and his or her alleged assailant.

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