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High Court Condemns Conduct of Prosecutor

March 04, 2005|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court, condemning a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney's conduct in a death penalty case, ruled Thursday that prosecutors should not intentionally tell different juries that two defendants committed the same crime when only one could have been responsible.

In 1988, two men, Peter Sakarias and Tauno Waidla, attacked Viivi Piirisild with a hatchet and a knife in her North Hollywood home.

The men had separate trials. In both, the court found, Los Angeles Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven Ipsen, the prosecutor, "inconsistently and falsely" told jurors that it was the defendant before them who had delivered the deathblow. Both men were convicted and sentenced to death.

Thursday's 6-1 ruling overturned the death sentence for Sakarias. The court allowed Waidla's death sentence, saying that enough evidence supported it.

The justices said Ipsen, now a vice president of the State Bar of California, had manipulated the evidence "intentionally and without good-faith justification."

"The prosecutor's unjustified use of inconsistent and irreconcilable factual theories to convict two people of a crime only one could have committed -- or to obtain harsher sentences for both on the basis of an act only one could have committed -- violates due process," Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote for the majority.

A spokesman for state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, who had defended the use of inconsistent arguments, said the ruling would give "clear guidance" that prosecutors "should settle on one theory and argue it consistently."

"While another case may come down the road where things are highly ambiguous, the caution to district attorneys is to err on the side of identifying a single theory," Lockyer's spokesman said.

The court's opinion noted that under some circumstances, a significant change in evidence might justify a prosecutor's changing his or her theory between trials.

Cliff Gardner, an attorney for Sakarias, said Lockyer's warning to prosecutors was long overdue.

"The state should not have defended this prosecutor for 10 years," Gardner said. "The vast number of prosecutors would never try a stunt like this. This guy got caught, and the state should have 'fessed up earlier."

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said he was concerned that the court had found that Ipsen acted in bad faith and that he would "take appropriate action" after further review of the ruling.

"Prosecutors must be candid and truthful in all dealings with the court and counsel," Cooley said. "Candor includes never seeking to mislead a court or jury."

Cooley said a committee would decide whether to hold another trial on Sakarias' sentence. Without a retrial, Sakarias would automatically receive a life sentence without possibility of parole.

Ipsen, who could not be reached Thursday, said last month that he altered his arguments between trials because his view of the evidence had changed.

Legal ethicists generally say that prosecutors should not present inconsistent arguments when they know that one must be false. Courts, however, have been divided over how far prosecutors can go.

Justice Marvin R. Baxter dissented in Thursday's ruling. As long as Ipsen didn't falsify the evidence, he had the right to make the best case against each defendant, Baxter said.

"There is no doubt that Sakarias and Waidla together committed the first-degree murder of Viivi Piirisild with special circumstances, and that both men were enthusiastic participants in the gruesome attack," Baxter wrote.

Sakarias and Waidla, Estonians who had been conscripted into the Soviet army, escaped into what was then West Germany and eventually settled in the United States. They met Piirisild through Estonian community groups in Los Angeles.

Piirisild, an Estonian community activist, and her husband befriended the two men. They invited Waidla to live with them, giving him household jobs to pay for his room and board. Sakarias visited.

Eventually, the relationship between the Piirisilds and Waidla soured, and he moved out.

On a July morning, when the Piirisilds were away, Waidla and Sakarias broke into their home. When Viivi Piirisild returned, the two men attacked her with a hatchet and a knife. After killing her, they stole her credit cards and jewelry. They were arrested near the Canadian border weeks later.

The coroner said Piirisild had died of multiple wounds, several of which could have been fatal.

According to statements by the defendants, Waidla had attacked Piirisild with the blunt end of the hatchet in the living room when she entered the door. Sakarias used a knife to stab her.

The two men then dragged her body back to a bedroom, where Sakarias said he hit her twice more with the hatchet. The coroner said the victim had a scrape on her back that was consistent with having been dragged. The scrape was made after her death, the coroner said.

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