SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN)
By DON DEBENEDICTIS
A criminal defense attorney claims an investigator for the Orange County District Attorney’s office beat him up during a courthouse confrontation that was inflamed by a scandal over prosecutors’ use of jailhouse informants.
In a $10 million federal civil rights lawsuit filed Monday, James M. Crawford says DA investigator Dillon P. Alley “brutally and viciously” assaulted him in a courthouse hallway on March 9 after the two squabbled about interviewing a witness.
As Crawford was walking away, Alley “pounced on top of plaintiff, pinning him down” against a bench with one arm around his neck, according to the complaint filed in Central California Federal Court.
Then he allegedly punched Crawford “approximately eight to 10 times; delivering repeated closed fist blows, brutally and viciously pummeling plaintiff’s face and head, and causing plaintiff severe injury to his face and head area” — including, according to news accounts, a broken bone under his eye.
The beating only ended when law enforcement officers pulled Alley away, “leaving [Crawford] battered and bloody on the wooden bench,” the complaint alleges.
The bizarre incident sparked an uproar among the local criminal defense bar, but it also attracted media coverage nationally. That was because just two weeks before the fight, Crawford, a well-respected criminal defense attorney in the county, had scored a new trial for a defendant in a 1998 murder case. He did that by demonstrating that the DA’s office had withheld information about a jailhouse informant.
District Attorney Anthony J. Rackauckas Jr.’s office has been under fire for two years over misuse of jailhouse snitches, drawing national headlines and investigations by the state attorney general and a special blue-ribbon committee.
Last year, Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals kicked the whole office off a high-profile mass murder case.
Since then, defense attorneys have upended or attacked at least 14 other prosecutions over informant-related concerns — including Crawford’s case in February.
The fight in March allegedly began as Alley was overseeing a witness in an assault case whom Crawford was assigned to represent on Fifth Amendment issues.
According to the complaint, the investigator attempted to hinder the defense attorney, and the two soon descended into profanity and name-calling. Alley called Crawford “sleazy,” while Crawford said Alley’s office was “trash” because of the informant scandal.
As Crawford walked away, he says Alley threw a binder clip at him. Alley then jumped Crawford and began pummeling him, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit also blames Orange County and 10 unnamed officials. The investigator used “unreasonable force … in large measure, as a proximate result of the longstanding ‘policies’, ‘customs’ and ‘practices’ of the Orange County District Attorney’s Office” and the county, the complaint states.
Among those policies and practices, according to the lawsuit, were arresting people on “bogus ‘resistance offenses,'” covering up misconduct by law enforcement and not prosecuting crimes committed by police officers.
“I put everything including the kitchen sink in that,” Jerry L. Steering, Crawford’s attorney, said about his densely written, 60-page complaint.
A specialist in police misconduct litigation, Steering even included several footnotes citing articles from his law firm’s webpage with titles such as “The Boot of the Police State” and “The Contempt of Cop Game.”
District attorney spokeswoman Roxi Fyad said in an email that the office could not comment on pending litigation.
But in legal papers filed in the assault case, the office did offer a sharply different view of the events in the hallway. An investigative assistant who saw the fight asserted that Crawford threw the binder clip — and the first blow.
“Crawford struck Alley in the face with his hand,” according to a declaration from Sylvia Mendez.
Later photos of the two show a badly beaten Crawford and a seemingly unharmed Alley. Mendez’s declaration explains that Crawford punched Alley in the torso.
There are other photos that will show Alley was the victim, according to Paul S. Meyer, Alley’s attorney in a criminal investigation by the state attorney general’s office. That investigation ended with no charges being filed because it was unclear who was the aggressor.
Crawford’s lawsuit seeks $10 million, plus treble damages and punitive damages, against the investigator and the county for four federal civil rights violations and six state law causes of action, including police misconduct, assault, battery and emotional distress.
Photo caption 1: Defense attorney Richard Crawford. Photo courtesy of Jerry Steering.
Photo caption 2: Orange County District Attorney’s Office investigator Dillon Alley. Photo courtesy of Jerry Steering.