O.C. courthouse brawl between defense attorney and D.A. investigator leaves lawyer bloodied

Two weeks ago, defense attorney James Crawford won a new trial for one of his clients, a convicted killer, and proudly mounted the resulting newspaper clips on his office wall.

It was another humiliation for the Orange County district attorney's office, however, which has seen case after case unravel in an ongoing scandal regarding the misuse of jailhouse informants.

Around 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, on an unrelated case, Crawford found himself in a confrontation with an investigator for the district attorney's office on the 10th floor of a busy Santa Ana courthouse. It left the attorney bloodied, his left eye badly swollen, while stunned jurors stepped carefully past blood spatter and crime-scene tape.

Crawford was advising a woman who had been subpoenaed to testify as the victim of a brawl in the parking lot of a Lake Forest nightclub. The investigator was there to watch over the woman, said Crawford's lawyer, Jerry Steering.

The investigator called Crawford "sleazy," Steering said, prompting Crawford to invoke the snitch scandal that has engulfed the district attorney's office in recent years.

Steering said that as Crawford walked away, the investigator called him a derogatory name. Crawford replied with a profanity of his own. Steering said the investigator tossed a paper clip at Crawford's head, which Crawford tossed back.

Steering said the investigator then attacked Crawford, slamming his head into a bench and pummeling him with punches.

In a brief interview with The Times, Crawford said he "began seeing lights from all the blows." He added that he suffered a sinus fracture.

Paul Meyer, an attorney representing the district attorney investigator, said his client was also injured in the brawl, but he declined to specify how.

"The one-sided version currently being circulated is simply not accurate," said Meyer, who declined to identify his client.

The district attorney's office also refused to identify the investigator, or to comment on whether he was still at work. Neither person was taken into custody. The county Sheriff's Department is investigating the case and will turn its report over to the state attorney general's office.

The union representing Orange County deputy sheriffs, which also represents district attorney's office investigators, criticized Crawford after he told reporters he planned to sue.

Tom Dominguez, president of the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, said in a statement there was "the very real possibility that this is an effort by a criminal defense attorney to drum up a payday."

The incident comes as the office of Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas is embroiled in an embarrassing controversy that shows no signs of abating. Numerous convictions, including homicide cases, have fallen apart amid claims by defense lawyers that authorities improperly withheld information about jailhouse informants.

In late February, an Orange County Superior Court judge ordered a new trial for Crawford's client Henry Rodriguez, 39, who was convicted of participating in the murder of a 22-year-old woman. The judge ruled that authorities had improperly withheld records showing a key prosecution witness had been an informant in numerous other cases.

The district attorney's office is appealing that ruling, along with the same judge's ruling tossing the office off its most high-profile case, that of mass shooter Scott Dekraai.

Dekraai's lawyer, Scott Sanders, has argued that Orange County authorities have violated inmates' rights for years by relying on jailhouse informants.

Brian Gurwitz, a defense attorney who has become an outspoken critic of the district attorney's office, said he saw the incident Wednesday in the context of Rackauckas' defensive response to criticism.

"Tony Rackauckas engenders a victim mentality in his office, and that victim mentality does not respect the role of defense counsel," Gurwitz said. He attributed the altercation to "the dysfunctional byproduct of that victim mentality."

Lee Stonum, an attorney in the Orange County alternate defender's office, said he also saw a connection between the courthouse incident and an increasingly rancorous us-versus-them attitude from upper management at the district attorney's office.

Leadership in the district attorney's office has "adopted this idea of, 'We're the victims and all these defense attorneys are bottom feeders,'" Stonum said. "Not only have they adopted that publicly, they have actively sought to spread that narrative within the ranks."

The district attorney's office declined to respond to the criticism.


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Twitter: @LATChrisGoffard

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 11, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Lawyer in brawl at court - Defense attorney and D.A. investigator make a bloody scene at O.C. courthouse." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe