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County Reviews Doctor's Trial Testimony

Reversals of verdicts prompt public defender to look at proceedings involving a deputy coroner known for changing his findings.

August 27, 2003|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County public defender's office has launched a review of all criminal trials in which a deputy coroner with a history of changing his testimony appeared for the prosecution, a top official said Tuesday.

The action follows a decision last week overturning a child-murder conviction because prosecutors did not tell defense lawyers of Dr. James Ribe's uneven record on the witness stand.

California appeals court justices cited five instances in which Ribe changed his findings in murder cases, including one that led to the 1997 release of a woman convicted of murder.

Chief Deputy Public Defender Robert Kalunian said his office, which handles 50,000 felonies a year, asked Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley this week to turn over the names of all criminal cases in which Ribe had been subpoenaed to testify as an expert witness for the prosecution. Lawyers in the alternate public defender's office, which also represents indigent criminal defendants, will also review the list.

"We will ask our lawyers to look at the cases and see if any of them should be reopened," Kalunian said.

Cases will be reopened whenever "the doctor's testimony is relevant or material to a contested issue," such as time or cause of death, he said.

If defendants have already been convicted, their lawyers will file writs of habeas corpus, seeking their release from prison, Kalunian said.

"It's really a matter of looking at his testimony ... and seeing how it affected the outcome [of the case], if it did," said Chief Deputy Alternate Public Defender David Carleton.

Defense lawyers also will examine whether prosecutors turned over exculpatory evidence regarding Ribe's prior testimony, he said. Prosecutors are required to disclose all evidence they have that bears on guilt or innocence, including exculpatory material that may be used to discredit government witnesses, including medical examiners.

A similar request was filed in 1997, after a change in Ribe's testimony freed a North Hollywood woman after 21 months in prison for her conviction in the beating death of a 2-year-old boy. Kalunian did not recall the results of that review.

Last week, the 2nd District Court of Appeal threw out Jose A. Salazar's conviction in a harshly worded opinion that blamed prosecutors for failing to disclose background on Ribe that might have affected the outcome of the murder case.

"Had the jury been aware of Dr. Ribe's credibility problems, which would have cast doubt on the prosecution's investigation, the case would have been cast in a different light with reasonable probability of a different result," wrote Justice J. Gary Hastings in a unanimous ruling by the three-judge panel.

Ribe, a senior medical examiner who has worked for the Los Angeles County coroner's office since 1987, was on vacation Tuesday and unavailable for comment.

Last week, his supervisor, Chief Medical Examiner Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, defended Ribe. He said he encourages all of his doctors to tell the truth, even if it means changing their opinions when new evidence is introduced.

Carleton said Ribe's change of testimony "is not necessarily bad."

Eve Wingfield, the woman in the 1997 case, would still be in prison if Ribe had not reexamined the evidence to show that she had not killed Lance Helms, he said.

"Here you have an injustice, in fact, being corrected because he made a change."

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