Ace Prosecutor in Homicides Leaving D.A. to Join Firm
Anthony J. Rackauckas, who gained a reputation for successful prosecution of difficult murder cases, has announced his resignation from the Orange County district attorney’s office after 16 years.
Rackauckas, 45, is switching to civil law and will soon join the Richard S. Rockwell law firm in Tustin. He said he will concentrate on trial work for the firm and added that he hopes to specialize in election law cases.
Rackauckas insists that the move to civil cases after years of prosecuting one murder after another will not be as dramatic as it might seem.
“The fundamentals of constitutional law are the same. I see it as a chance to expand my legal experience,” Rackauckas said. “But I guess some people probably do think I came with the furniture around here.”
He said the job offer from Rockwell was a good opportunity that he decided he could not pass up.
Rackauckas, who will leave the district attorney’s office at the end of September, has been on the homicide panel for nearly 10 years. He had been assigned the most important case in the office--the Freeway Killer case--in 1982, when he abruptly took a year’s leave of absence to campaign full time against Rose Elizabeth Bird, former chief justice of California.
When he returned to the district attorney’s office in 1983, he remained one of the county’s leaders in the statewide effort to unseat Bird, who was voted out of office in 1986.
News about Rackauckas’ resignation, made public Wednesday, has shocked his co-workers in the district attorney’s office.
“He is our bulldog,” said Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. James G. Enright, who is Rackauckas’ supervisor. “Yet he has that easy manner that is extremely effective; he’s just brilliant with a jury.”
James P. Cloninger, a homicide prosecutor who has worked with Rackauckas outside the office on victims’ rights issues, said younger lawyers in the office looked up to Rackauckas. “When you had a thorny problem, you went to Tony,” Cloninger said. “This really will be the end of an era around here.”
Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard M. King said his fellow prosecutors were caught by surprise and are “saddened” by Rackauckas’ decision to leave.
“Ever since I’ve been here, when I’ve had a problem on a case, I’ve turned to Tony,” King said. “It’s hard to believe he won’t be here.”
King will take over from Rackauckas the Thomas Maniscalco/Daniel Duffy case, a Westminster triple slaying case that has been awaiting trial for more than four years. Maniscalco is not expected to go to trial until near the end of the year; Duffy’s trial is scheduled to follow.
Rackauckas, who has worked on the case since before the pair’s arrest in 1984, said he regrets not seeing it through to trial.
“But there is never a time you can leave this office when you won’t have cases pending,” Rackauckas said. “It’s easier leaving a case like this, knowing we have so many capable people around here to carry on with it.”
Maniscalco, a practicing attorney, and Duffy, a close friend of his, are accused of killing a fellow Hessian motorcycle club member and two of his friends in an act of revenge in 1980. Nearly four years after the killing, no one had been arrested. But Rackauckas and investigators had been working diligently to track down witnesses who had scattered across the country.
Maniscalco and Duffy were arrested after one of the people living at Maniscalco’s Westminster house when the slayings occurred was found in the military and agreed to become a prosecution witness.
But Rackauckas, discussing the case recently, grinned and said, “Maniscalco may not know it, but I’d already decided I was going to charge him with murder even without that witness.”
Case Won High Praise
The case that may have brought Rackauckas the highest praise from colleagues was the murder of a Los Alamitos housewife, Johann Seigman, in 1976. Seigman and her three children were kidnaped from their home at gunpoint by two men in a ransom plot. The children were turned loose, but Seigman was taken to a vacant oil field in Dominguez Hills and shot five times in the back of the head.
William Paul Gullett and Ronald Lewis Ewing were charged with her murder, but the case against them was soon dismissed for lack of evidence. When Rackauckas returned from his leave of absence in 1983, Enright and Dist. Atty. Cecil Hicks asked him to see if anything could be done with the Seigman case.
Rackauckas saw that investigators on the case had stayed with it even after charges were dismissed. He worked with them to round up old witnesses and to develop new ones.
The result was that new murder charges were filed against the pair, nearly 10 years after the killing. Rackauckas gained first-degree murder convictions against each of them in separate trials in 1985 and 1986.
Superior Court Judge Luis A. Cardenas, who presided over both trials, said Wednesday that he doubted either man would have been convicted had it not been for Rackauckas.
“He was just tenacious,” Cardenas said. “The evidence was so old, and it was such a difficult case to put on. But, Tony laid it all out very carefully so the jury could understand it. It was just incredible courtroom skill.”
Orange County Sheriff’s Department investigator Stan Kincaid, who worked on that case with Rackauckas, agreed with the judge’s assessment. But, the investigator said his admiration for Rackauckas goes beyond his courtroom skill.
“Tony is the most ethical individual I have ever seen in a courtroom,” Kincaid said. “He believes in fair play.”
Rackauckas also is widely respected by most defense lawyers.
But there are some detractors, many of them defense attorneys who believe that Rackauckas’ anti-Bird fervor was a disservice to the judicial system.
A few defense attorneys also have complained that Rackauckas’ zeal in the courtroom sometimes blinds judges from giving a fair hearing to legitimate defense issues.
Superior Court Judge Francisco P. Briseno once questioned Rackauckas’ judgment when he insisted on a new death penalty trial for a 27-year-old man convicted of first-degree murder. The jurors had been unable to agree whether to return a death verdict.
The judge asked Rackauckas to return to his office and meet with others on the homicide panel before deciding. “I will do that, but my answer is going to be the same,” Rackauckas told him.
Briseno eventually agreed to order a new penalty trial in the case. But it was dropped after Rackauckas’ leave of absence forced him to turn the case over to another prosecutor.
Maniscalco’s trial attorney, Joanne Harrold, does not hide her dislike for Rackauckas. She has asked the court to find Rackauckas in contempt, claiming that he has withheld information he should have turned over to the defense by court order.
Harrold was surprised to hear Rackauckas was leaving the case. “Maybe now we can get this case moving again,” she said.
Laughs at Criticism
Rackauckas laughs when he hears such criticism. Rackauckas has been more blunt than most prosecutors in claiming that defense lawyers drag out cases because it helps them build fat attorney fees. He also has complained that the courts too often shun the rights of crime victims.
Rackauckas ran for a Superior Court judgeship seat in 1986 but lost in a close race. Soon afterward, he worked with other prosecutors and conservative legislators to create a victims’ rights initiative. That effort has so far been beset by a lack of funds, but he hopes that the measure will be on the California ballot in 1989. It seeks to speed up criminal trials and cut back on many pretrial hearings. It would also force court-appointed attorneys to agree not to take on additional cases that will lead to lengthy trial delays.
Rackauckas said his switch to civil law will not interrupt his participation in that ballot effort.
“I believe in it just as strongly as I ever did,” Rackauckas said.
Rackauckas also said he has not ruled out accepting some criminal cases in his new private practice.
“I’m not going to be a turncoat and start defending the kinds of people I was prosecuting,” Rackauckas said. “But I believe everyone is entitled to a lawyer. I think there are some people out there in trouble I can be comfortable representing.”