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VENTURA COUNTY

D.A. Won't Seek Death Penalty After Promise Is Discovered

Courts: Prosecutors have learned that a gang member accused in a Ventura girl's slaying was offered leniency if he cooperated in the case.

October 10, 2002|JENIFER RAGLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County prosecutors said Wednesday they will not seek the death penalty against a skinhead gang member charged with killing a teenage girl four years ago, after revelations that someone in the district attorney's office had promised the suspect leniency.

Authorities previously said they would pursue a death sentence against Michael Bridgeford, 25, who is accused--along with fellow skinhead David Ziesmer--of fatally stabbing 17-year-old Nichole Hendrix of Ventura in a motel bathroom in October 1998.

Bridgeford's preliminary hearing is set Dec. 9.

In preparing for the case, prosecutors came across transcripts of tape-recorded interviews with Bridgeford during the original investigation, said Patricia Murphy, chief deputy district attorney.

She said the transcripts show that someone from her office assured Bridgeford that if he cooperated in the investigation, penalties against him would be lenient. Bridgeford gave a full statement to authorities and worked as an informant in the case.

"We feel this crime and this defendant are worthy of the death penalty," Murphy said. "But we have to be fair. And if statements were made that could be construed as promises, we just have to live up to that."

Steve Powell, Bridgeford's attorney, declined to comment.

Bridgeford, Ziesmer and Bridget Callahan were indicted by the grand jury in August 2000 on charges of first-degree murder and special allegations that they killed Hendrix during a robbery and kidnapping.

Earlier this year, Ziesmer's indictment was thrown out after a Santa Barbara County judge ruled that Ventura County's grand jury did not reflect the county's population because it lacked representative numbers of women and Latinos. New complaints on the same charges were immediately filed.

Murphy said rather than deal with whether Bridgeford's grand jury indictment would be tossed out, attorneys on both sides agreed to start over with a preliminary hearing.

If convicted, Bridgeford faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The district attorney will still seek the death penalty against Ziesmer, Murphy said.

Callahan, whom authorities accused of standing guard while Bridgeford and Ziesmer allegedly stabbed Hendrix to death, is awaiting trial after charges were also refiled against her and a judge ordered her to stand trial.

Murphy would not reveal who promised Bridgeford leniency, saying that information is "not important."

Promises are often made to defendants in exchange for cooperation that could result in a stronger case, she said. The problem here, according to Murphy, was that top district attorney officials did not know such assurances had been given to Bridgeford.

"With this as the penalty, we have no room for error," she said. "Someone's life is at stake. We have to be beyond reproach."

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