In his campaigns to win elected office in Los Angeles Carmen Trutanich billed himself as a fearless crime fighter.
To drive home the point, he talked frequently about a murder conviction he won as a young prosecutor against a South L.A. gang member who was sentenced to death for a 1982 killing.
Trutanich, who served four years as city attorney, told of how he hadn’t wavered in his face-off with Barry Williams, whom he called “one of the most notorious and violent gang leaders in Los Angeles.”
But as Trutanich was giving stump speeches, lawyers for Williams were telling a federal judge a very different story about the candidate and the murder case. Serious misconduct by Trutanich, they alleged, had deprived Williams of a fair trial.
In a recent sharply worded ruling, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter agreed, concluding that Trutanich had broken two cardinal rules for criminal prosecutors by withholding the identity of a witness and failing to correct false testimony by his key witness.
“Trutanich’s failure at trial,” the judge wrote, “was deeply troubling.”
After several years of litigation, Carter threw out Williams’ murder conviction and death sentence, finding that Trutanich’s conduct, along with other errors at trial, “significantly undermined the integrity” of the guilty verdict. In his ruling, Carter also took a swipe at justices on the California Supreme Court for refusing to review Williams’ case when it came to them more than 15 years ago and giving similar short shrift to most death penalty reviews.
Trutanich, who now works in a private law firm, has staunchly denied misleading the jury or withholding information from Williams’ attorneys when he prosecuted Williams in 1985 as a member of the hard-core gang unit in the LA County district attorney’s office.
“I’m sure as hell not going to my grave and meeting my maker having hid information in a death penalty case,” he said in an interview. “Never happened. Never happened. No. Not me.”
The order from Carter is a rare one, joining just a handful of death penalty convictions in California that have been overturned because of prosecutorial misconduct since capital punishment was reinstated in 1977. In that time, more than 850 people have been sentenced to death.
Mark Silverstein, who represented Williams in the 1990s in the bid to overturn the conviction in state courts, recalled being stunned when he discovered documents that Carter cited as proof of prosecutorial wrongdoing.
“The outcome of the case may very well have been different,” if not for Trutanich’s actions, Silverstein said.
Williams, 54, is not expected to walk free any time soon, if ever. In a separate trial, Trutanich convicted Williams of murder in another fatal shooting, resulting in a sentence of 34 years to life. Unless the conviction in that case is also reversed, a state parole board — and then the governor — would need to decide whether to grant Williams parole.
A spokeswoman for California Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris said the office was reviewing Carter’s ruling and had not yet decided whether to appeal. L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, meanwhile, could choose to retry Williams, although winning a new conviction would be difficult with most of the witnesses and investigators dead.
Carter’s decision late last month centers on the killing of Jerome Dunn, who was gunned down on a rainy night in March 1982 on a street in South Los Angeles by someone in a passing van. Patricia Lewis, who was a passenger in a car driving nearby, was the only eyewitness to testify.
At the trial, Lewis identified Williams as the van’s driver and said she saw him, not others in the van, fire at Dunn, Carter wrote.
But Lewis lied on the stand about the identity of the person who was driving her, according to a detailed review of the case Carter included in his ruling. Evidence indicated Lewis gave a fake name to protect the driver, Arlean McKay, who was afraid of getting involved, Carter wrote.
In faulting Trutanich, Carter pointed to handwritten notes by the prosecutor that Silverstein found in the investigative file compiled by detectives and prosecutors at the time of the slaying. In the notes, Trutanich wrote both McKay’s name and the fake name Lewis made up, according to Carter’s ruling. In one note, Trutanich wrote the two names next to each other and put them in quotation marks — which the judge said indicated Trutanich knew there were doubts about the woman’s actual identity.
Trutanich acknowledged that he wrote the notes but insisted he never learned the real identity of the woman who drove Lewis. McKay’s name had surfaced during the investigation, and Trutanich said it was provided to the defense.
“I’m telling you, everything I had, they got. I didn’t try to keep anything secret from them,” Trutanich said at a hearing in the case last year.
But the judge said in his ruling that he reviewed the documents Trutanich turned over to the defense at trial, and they did not include the handwritten notes or any other information indicating McKay drove Lewis.
The more egregious error, however, was that Trutanich did not speak up during the trial when Lewis used the fake name, Jean Rivers, the judge wrote.
Taken together, Carter ruled, the missteps kept the defense in the dark about the driver’s identity and denied them the chance to find her to determine whether her account differed from what Lewis said she saw. Had jurors known that she had lied about who was driving, it might have given less credibility to the rest of her testimony, the judge ruled.
McKay died a few years after Williams’ trial. Lewis could not be reached for comment.
In throwing out the murder conviction, Carter also ruled that an informant had improperly elicited information from Williams and should not have been allowed to testify at the trial and that a second informant who testified was not credible.
Trutanich denied in an interview with The Times that he had invoked Williams’ case in his election campaigns, which included his successful 2009 run for city attorney and his failed bid to become district attorney in 2012.
Campaign materials from the two races, however, show otherwise.
In a brochure he created for the city attorney race, Trutanich noted he had won a conviction and death verdict against Williams. And in a television spot, the narrator says, “It was Trutanich who got the conviction of Barry Glenn Williams” and, if elected, would work “to make sure gang members serve real time.”
An online ad made for his district attorney race showed Trutanich driving along the street where the killing occurred and talking at length about the case. He described Lewis as “a church-going lady” and praised her willingness to testify despite having her house shot up before the trial.
“I can tell you that this case is really built and was won on Carmen Trutanich’s tenacity,” a former district attorney’s investigator and close aide to Trutanich says in the video. “He gave it 24/7, so there was no time off for him.”
Trutanich lost his bid for reelection as city attorney in 2013.
In his ruling, Carter saved some of his harshest criticism for the state Supreme Court, which rejected Williams’ petition for help in 2000 without a substantial review of the case. The move, Carter wrote, “was inexplicable.”
Under California law, Trutanich is required to notify the State Bar, which administers attorney discipline, of Carter’s ruling. A 2010 study by the California Innocence Project found that the State Bar rarely disciplined prosecutors in such cases.
Joe Holmes, a retired L.A. County sheriff’s investigator who worked on the case, defended Trutanich, recalling him as a good prosecutor who wouldn’t intentionally deceive or mislead. Williams, he added, was a notoriously violent gang member suspected of being involved in more than a dozen slayings.
Silverstein, Williams’ former attorney, thought differently.
“A prosecutor hid evidence, and it took 30 years to correct it,” he said. “There’s something wrong with that.”