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D.A. says errors led to slaying

Prosecutors admit that their mistakes allowed the victim's estranged husband to get out of jail and kill her.

June 05, 2008|Andrew Blankstein and Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles County prosecutors acknowledged Wednesday that miscommunications, errors in judgment and violations of office policy by staffers contributed to the chain of events that left a West Covina woman dead at the hands of her estranged husband.

Curtis Bernard Harris, 34, kidnapped Monica Thomas-Harris, 37, and killed her before taking his own life Jan. 5 at a Whittier motel. Weeks earlier, he had been sentenced to prison after another incident in which he threatened her with a stun gun and kidnapped her.

Harris was given a plea deal that allowed him to be free until his sentencing, even though a probation report advised that he be kept behind bars. Additionally, prosecutors failed to immediately warn Thomas-Harris that Harris was back on the street.

The release of Harris "was the ill-fated result of questionable individual decisions and actions of otherwise well-intentioned, dedicated prosecutors," a report from the Los Angeles County district attorney's office said.

The admission comes in a case that received national attention and became a rallying cry for some domestic-violence groups.

Legal experts said the public acknowledgment of errors was a rare but important step for prosecutors. Loyola law professor Stan Goldman said "confessing to a screw-up" is a start, but the real test would be "taking practical steps to correct the problem."

"It's like a doctor who discovers a patient is allergic to a particular drug and fails to write down in the patient's chart that they are allergic," he said. "Like doctors, the district attorney's office deals daily with life-and-death issues, and they need to do more than make promises they are going to do something about it."

Officials at the district attorney's office said they have improved the system designed to prevent a repeat of the Harris case.

"When tragedies like this happen, we must be introspective and examine if any policies or procedures were not followed or were not adequate," Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said in a statement released Wednesday evening. "This is what this report is all about. It speaks for itself. It's a level of transparency that's healthy."

Harris' criminal history dated from at least 1993, and he had served time in prison on charges of dealing marijuana.

He pleaded guilty Dec. 21 to threatening his wife with a stun gun. In exchange for the plea, Harris agreed to a 16-month prison sentence. But his attorney, Arthur P. Lindars, asked that Harris be released on his own recognizance in order to get his affairs in order before reporting to prison, a request the prosecutor agreed to and the judge granted.

At the time of the murder-suicide, officials from the district attorney's office said it was not immediately clear whether prosecutors saw a recommendation by the county Probation Department calling Harris "unsuitable for release." But Sandi Gibbons, a district attorney spokeswoman, acknowledged Wednesday that the report was in the court file at the time a prosecutor filling in that day agreed to the plea deal and release. Gibbons said it appears the substitute prosecutor read it before agreeing to the plea bargain that allowed Harris' release.

It is the practice of the district attorney's office to alert domestic violence victims if their assailant is released from custody, but prosecutors did not notify Thomas-Harris (she learned about the release from an automated call from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department).

Harris-Thomas was last heard from Jan. 3, the day after she failed to show up to work, when her 15-year-old daughter reached her by cellphone. The teenager later told police she could hear her stepfather screaming in the background even as her mother assured her she was fine.

The 66-page review of the case suggests several reforms. Officials said that prosecutors handling family-violence cases must fully spell out the facts of the case in the court file as well as any impressions about whether a suspect represents a clear danger to victims or the public, said Pamela Booth, a branch supervisor who oversees the district attorney's office in Pomona.

The information is critical, she said, because even though family violence prosecutors are, in theory, assigned cases and victims from beginning to end, they may go on vacation or be transferred, resulting in the case being handed off to someone not as familiar with the crucial details.

The district attorney's office also recently overhauled the way all case files are documented and organized. Now, key documents -- including reports from corrections officials, probation, mental health records and police agencies -- will be found in the same place in the file.

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