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Is Justice Done in 2 Versions?

A California murder case in which two juries were told differing accounts of events raises concerns about fairness, ethics and tactics.

March 03, 2005|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles prosecutor Steven J. Ipsen, arguing his first murder case in 1990, told a jury that Tauno Waidla had used a hatchet to inflict "the death blow" that killed a woman in her North Hollywood living room. Waidla was sentenced to die.

Several months later, the same prosecutor told a different jury that Waidla's accomplice, Peter Sakarias, had "finally ended" the life of the victim, Viivi Piirisild. Sakarias also was sentenced to die for the murder.

The lethal blow could not have been inflicted by both men. Did the prosecutor mislead the jury? If so, should the death sentences be thrown out?

More broadly, how far should prosecutors be allowed to go in presenting conflicting facts to different juries?

Both the U.S. Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court are considering that issue. In both cases, death sentences sit in the balance. The California court could rule in the Piirisild murder cases as early as today.

The U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing an Ohio case involving two men who broke into a home, killed a woman and wounded her husband.

In that case, in which the court is expected to rule later this year, a prosecutor who argued that one of the defendants had fired the fatal shots accepted a guilty plea from him. The man received the death penalty. In a later trial, the prosecutor told a jury that the co-defendant had fired the fatal shots. The co-defendant received a life sentence.

Courts and legal ethicists have split on the question of whether such tactics are proper.

Prosecutors, as representatives of the government, are responsible for more than just advocacy. Legal ethics say they must seek justice and truth, not just victories.

Because of that, some courts and ethicists say prosecutors should not take contradictory positions knowing that one must be false, particularly in a death penalty trial. A prosecutor is more likely to win a death sentence if he or she can show that the defendant was directly responsible for the death.

"The prosecutor cannot argue for an inference he knows is false," said Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University School of Law who specializes in legal ethics.

"Defense lawyers can," Gillers said, but "the prosecutor has an obligation to an accurate verdict. The defense lawyer's obligation is to win."

Others say that prosecutors should be free to make the most convincing case possible using the available evidence.

"A prosecutor is entitled to ask different juries to draw different inferences provided both arguments are made in good faith and not based on any false evidence," California Deputy Atty. Gen. Michael C. Keller argued before the California Supreme Court.

No one knows for certain how often prosecutors blame different defendants for the same criminal act.

University of San Francisco law professor Steven Shatz, who has reviewed cases of inconsistent arguments in California, found 14 trials during the last couple of decades in which prosecutors made inconsistent arguments about the roles played by co-defendants.

"I was quite surprised to find out how often it happens," Shatz said.

In some cases he reviewed, prosecutors presented substantially the same evidence at both trials but argued that the juries should draw different inferences. In others, prosecutors provided different evidence.

Such tactics appeared to bother several justices of the California Supreme Court during a hearing in December on the Los Angeles cases.

"In each trial, there is a selective manipulation of the evidence

Other justices argued that it was the defense lawyer's job to police the prosecutor's argument.

"What we have here is a horrendous murder -- as bad as any I have seen -- and two defendants working in concert to accomplish that murder," Justice Marvin R. Baxter said. Defense lawyers could have "put on a case" to expose any inconsistent arguments, he said.

Defense lawyers, however, note that doing what Baxter suggested is not always possible because of the rules that govern trials.

The trials for Piirisild's murder show how a prosecutor can create different impressions using the same evidence.

The 1988 killing of Piirisild, 52, stunned Estonian immigrants in Los Angeles.

Piirisild, an Estonian community activist, and her husband had met Waidla and Sakarias through a group opposed to Soviet occupation of the Baltic states.

At first the couple warmly embraced the young men, who had defected from the Soviet Army and escaped to West Germany.

The Piirisilds invited Waidla to live with them. For a year, he did jobs around the house in return for room and board. Sakarias visited.

Eventually, the Piirisilds began to feel alarmed by Waidla's behavior, court records say. Waidla demanded money for the work he had done and threatened to report the couple for construction done without a permit. The Piirisilds evicted him.

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