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Prosecutor Apologizes for Misdeed

The Valley

Courts: Deputy D.A. Michael Duarte is fined $1,000 for altering evidence in a West Hills capital murder case. Defense lawyers say he got off too easy.

February 14, 2002|CAITLIN LIU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A veteran prosecutor with the Los Angeles County district attorney's office tearfully apologized in a downtown courtroom Wednesday for altering key evidence during a capital murder case and hiding what he did from the defense.

Under an agreement he reached with the court, Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Duarte was fined $1,000, and contempt of court charges, which could have resulted in a jail sentence, were dropped.

"I find these apologies and expressions of remorse sincere, and I accept them," Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Terry A. Green said.

He called Duarte's offense very serious and held him in violation of a court order requiring him to turn over unrevised witness statements to the defense. But because of Duarte's admissions, Green declined to hold him in contempt.

At Wednesday's hearing, Duarte stood with bowed head as he read a statement. He was flanked by three members of his legal defense team--two from the district attorney's appellate division and private attorney Harland Braun.

"I wish to apologize to the court, my office, the defense and the victims' families for my actions and the enormous burden of a retrial resulting from my violation of [the court] order," Duarte said, voice cracking. He took a long pause before saying he already had reported himself to the State Bar of California for possible discipline.

Duarte, whose failures to disclose evidence have caused two mistrials, was not punished enough, some defense attorneys said.

"What he did was egregious," Deputy Public Defender Michael Gottlieb said. Duarte "got a slap on the wrist," Deputy Alternate Public Defender Henry Hall said.

Once a high-profile trial attorney with the district attorney's elite major crimes division, Duarte has been reassigned to the anti-truancy unit since his botched prosecution of a 1998 West Hills case involving the murder of two witnesses.

Last May, near the end of a months-long trial of defendants Kenneth Leighton and Randall Williams, a law clerk at the district attorney's office told her supervisors that Duarte had altered a witness statement.

Duarte had the law clerk, Jennifer Blair, take notes while he interviewed a witness, who later testified about an alleged confession made by Leighton. After Duarte read Blair's handwritten notes, he crossed out certain parts and added others. He instructed Blair to rewrite her notes with his revisions and then gave a copy of the rewritten notes to defense lawyers.

Blair's revelation rocked the trial, and the district attorney's office dropped its bid for the death penalty against the two defendants.

Williams' jury deadlocked; Leighton's convicted him. Citing Duarte's "prejudicial misconduct," Green threw out Leighton's verdict, declaring a mistrial.

The deleted evidence "deprived the defense of evidence that potentially would have impeached that confession," Green said.

Leighton and Williams now face retrial in Van Nuys Superior Court, where the case has been moved, and new prosecutors have been assigned.

In 2000, Duarte caused a mistrial in the murder trial of Olympic boxer Henry Tillman when he failed to disclose the background of a prosecution witness who had been a police informant. Tillman later pleaded guilty to attempted murder and voluntary manslaughter.

"A prosecutor's job is to do justice," said Gerald Chaleff, the former Police Commission president who was appointed by the court as a special prosecutor in Duarte's contempt matter. "This case was even worse because it was a death penalty case."

The district attorney's office also is considering whether to discipline the prosecutor, insiders said.

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