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Ventura County

D.A. Accused of 'Sloppy Pleading' in Murder Case

Law: Justices hear arguments over filing of an 'information' in the 1993 slaying of a woman. Two sets of charges have already been set aside.

June 15, 2002|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Attorneys for a 33-year-old murder defendant told a panel of appellate court justices Friday that Ventura County prosecutors blundered when they filed "a sloppy pleading" against their client and should not be allowed to proceed with the case.

Four months ago, defendant Michael Schultz was re-arrested while in jail after a judge set aside a year-old murder indictment, ruling that the county grand jury had been composed of too few women and didn't reflect a fair cross-section of the community as required by law.

Rather than take the case to a new grand jury, prosecutors filed a document--called a felony information--charging Schultz with murder and related allegations in the death of a Port Hueneme woman, and the case was set for a preliminary hearing before a judge.

Defense lawyers challenged the second set of charges, saying prosecutors made a mistake by filing an information instead of a similar document called a complaint. Superior Court Judge Art Gutierrez agreed and dismissed the case. Prosecutors challenged Gutierrez's ruling to the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Ventura, which heard arguments Friday afternoon. Lawyers say the issue is significant because, after two dismissals, the district attorney would be barred from prosecuting Schultz in the slaying.

"In capital litigation, we don't get that many bites at the apple," said Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Schwartz, who told the justices that the defendant has not been harmed or had his rights violated by the wording on the disputed document.

Schwartz noted that before Gutierrez got the case, two Superior Court judges directed prosecutors to file the case as an information rather than a complaint.

Schwartz said Gutierrez abused his discretion and should be reversed by the appellate court.

But Chief Assistant Public Defender Michael McMahon argued that Gutierrez made the proper decision when faced with a sloppy document. McMahon held up a copy of the paperwork in court, pointing out where the word "complaint" was scratched out and replaced with the word "information."

Under state law, McMahon said, an information is only filed after a preliminary hearing has been held, not before.

"This is not a technicality," he told the justices.

Schultz, a former Ventura resident, is accused of raping and strangling a 44-year-old Port Hueneme woman in her home in 1993 and setting the residence on fire to conceal the crime. He faces one count of murder and two special-circumstance allegations that he killed Cynthia Burger during a rape and burglary. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Given the potential punishment, defense lawyers say it is incumbent upon the prosecution to follow the letter of the law.

"If you are going to seek to execute somebody, you've got to follow the rules of criminal procedure that have been in place for 150 years," McMahon said after the hearing. The justices are expected to rule at a future date. Schultz remains in jail without bail.

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