Orange County prosecutors Tuesday filed assault and weapons charges against a white teen-ager, two white men and one black man as a result of a street fight that resulted in near-fatal head injuries to a 15-year-old black Garden Grove girl. However, they ruled out race as a motive for the violence.
The only felony charges were filed against the 17-year-old white youth, who prosecutors believe threw a shard of heavy sliding-door glass that nearly killed Amber Jefferson, whose mother is white and father is black.
The attack on Amber, a cheerleader at Santiago High School, has become a centerpiece for civil rights activists to focus public attention on their convictions that racism is prevalent in Orange County.
But Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi on Tuesday harshly criticized those community leaders who have called the Amber Jefferson attack a racial issue and defended his decision not to seek hate-crime charges against anyone in the case.
"It's a shame that various sources will express themselves without being privy to the facts," Capizzi said at a news conference. "It's easy to comment and make statements that border on hysteria and get the community upset, but which have no factual basis."
Amber Jefferson's mother, Cody Donnelly, was incredulous at Capizzi's decision not to seek hate-crime charges.
"Oh my God, what's going on?" she said. "This is just incredible to me. My daughter is still in very bad condition and anyone who says this thing was blown out of proportion doesn't know what we've been through."
In addition, the state attorney general's office said Tuesday it will proceed with its own review of the case despite the district attorney's decision.
"We're very much concerned about the allegations in this case," said Rudy DeLeon, special assistant to Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp. "That's his (district attorney's) evaluation based upon the facts he has, but we would also be concerned about making an evaluation based on the data."
The Orange County Sheriff's Department, in sending prosecutors the results of its three-week investigation into the incident, had included "race hate violations" as one of several possible charges to be considered.
But Capizzi said his office rejected filing any race hatred charges after a thorough review of the state statutes and the investigators' reports on the incident.
"Racism was not the cause of the fight or of Amber's injuries," Capizzi said. He added that "this was a street brawl" that started with two white girls fighting over a boyfriend.
Amber was injured Aug. 7 shortly after midnight in the parking lot of a Stanton condominium complex where she was staying for a few days. Twelve people from the two sides fighting were involved altogether, but she was the only person seriously hurt.
A team of surgeons operated for more than 10 hours on her head injuries. The most serious injury was a split on the left side of her head that ran from above her eyes to her chin and ran deep enough to break her jawbone. Her jaw remains wired and doctors say she may not fully recover for another three years.
Amber and those with her say some of the whites called them "nigger" before the fighting broke out.
Capizzi said that although racial slurs were made by some of the whites against the blacks, "it did not escalate" to the level of a violation of the race hatred statute.
The decision brought a sharp reaction from Amber's supporters.
"We are very disappointed that no race crimes have been charged and that (one) of Amber's friends has been charged," said Carol Sobel, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing the Jefferson family. "I have read the D.A.'s account of the events, and we simply do not agree with them."
Black community leaders who had already condemned the Sheriff's Department for not making a quick arrest in the incident were also harsh in their criticism of Capizzi.
"To deny what is unfortunately an ugly aspect of day-to-day life in Orange County is, in fact, to allow things to get worse," said Mark Ridley-Thomas, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles.
But Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, which had asked authorities to look into racial overtones to the incident, defended Capizzi.
"I think the fact that (the district attorney) is going to prosecute someone for a particularly vicious crime overshadows whether or not the hate crimes act is used. . . . The most important thing is that the person who cut Amber is brought to justice; that will send as strong a message as anything."
Capizzi said a major problem has been the number of conflicting stories from witnesses about what happened.
For example, he said, when the youths from Amber's group were first interviewed, they never said anything about racial slurs. It wasn't until subsequent interviews that they mentioned them, he said.
Capizzi also said one of the youths who was with Amber the night of the attack told authorities that some in that group encouraged him to claim it was a racially motivated incident because he could make $1,000 as his share of the proceeds in a civil lawsuit. Capizzi said that youth is adamant that race was not involved.
Capizzi also defended Sheriff Brad Gates' staff for not making an immediate arrest.
"It's better to take your time and do things right than to hurry and have to do them over again," he said. Capizzi said the criticism was unfair because the youth considered responsible for Amber's injury was taken into custody nearly 24 hours after the incident.
Although he wasn't charged then, he was held as a probation violator because of his involvement in the incident. A Sheriff's Department spokesman said the youth was on probation for burglary.
Capizzi said charges might have been filed earlier if the sheriff had received better cooperation from witnesses. One other problem, he said, was that Amber herself "did not know exactly who or what had caused her injuries."
Amber and a small group of friends had just returned to the condominium complex when a white girl in her group confronted another white girl she had argued with earlier about a mutual boyfriend. Suddenly, according to various accounts, two young white men appeared with baseball bats; some of the blacks with Amber grabbed 2-by-4 boards, and a fight broke out. The Sheriff's Department, in its report to prosecutors, said there may be grounds for charging all 12 people involved from the two sides.
But Capizzi said his office decided to restrict the charges to violations where there was a good chance of a conviction.
The 17-year-old accused of a felony faces charges of mayhem, assault with a deadly weapon, infliction of great bodily injury and battery. He could receive a maximum sentence of 11 years in prison if convicted on all charges. Capizzi said his office will ask that he be tried as an adult.
The other three were charged only with misdemeanors.
Included was the youth's father, Earl Wimberly, 42, accused of assault and exhibiting a deadly weapon. A third white charged is Trevor McClure, 21, accused of exhibiting a deadly weapon and challenging to fight. The only black charged was Louis Jones, 19, accused of fighting in public and malicious mischief.
Although Jones was the only one from Amber's group charged, Capizzi said that group may have been responsible for starting the incident. He said members of the group had been drinking at a motel earlier that night and were loud enough to cause the manager to complain.
The group then headed to the condominium complex with the specific intent "of engaging in a fight," Capizzi said, because of an earlier confrontation between the white girls.
Although Capizzi did not agree with those who claimed the incident was racial, he insisted his office and the Sheriff's Department are sensitive to allegations that a race question was involved.
"It's safe to say that there was much more extensive effort (in the investigation) once that was injected into it, because it's something the county is very much concerned with," Capizzi said. "I don't think Orange Countians will tolerate that sort of thing."
But his answers did not satisfy many of Amber's supporters.
"Whenever something like this happens, it's always like we are the agitators and we're stepping out of bounds," said the Rev. James Carrington, pastor of the Friendship Baptist Church in Yorba Linda. "Despite what officials say, we are aware of similar incidents of prejudice and abuse that are flaring up in Orange County."
HATE-CRIME ACTIONS: Prosecutors hesitate to use a law they say is vague. A19