A Ventura County deputy district attorney has been accused of prosecutorial misconduct after a witness was arrested last week as she waited in a courthouse hallway to testify in her husband's drug trial.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Terence Kilbride appeared at a hearing before Superior Court Judge Charles W. Campbell Jr. on Wednesday to answer the complaint by the public defender's office.
On April 6, Kilbride directed a Sheriff's Department law clerk to check whether there were outstanding arrest warrants for Kara Crecelius, an Ojai woman who had come to the Hall of Justice to testify in the drug-possession trial of her husband, John Crecelius, 30.
The check turned up two warrants against Kara Crecelius for failure to pay traffic tickets. Kilbride informed the clerk that Crecelius was at the courthouse and, when the woman was not immediately arrested, he phoned the Sheriff's Department on the matter a second time, the clerk testified.
"He said that she is still here, and that no one has picked her up," testified clerk Ruth Feagans.
Kara Crecelius was arrested moments after Kilbride's second call and spent several hours behind bars before Campbell ordered her released to testify in the drug case. In her trial testimony, she described the circumstances surrounding her husband's Dec. 19 arrest in Ojai.
Wednesday morning, the jury convicted John Crecelius of possession of methamphetamine for sale and being under the influence of the drug.
After the afternoon hearing on the misconduct complaint, Campbell said he will make a ruling May 11, when Crecelius is scheduled for sentencing. Crecelius' attorney wants Campbell to order a new trial.
The complaint against Kilbride raises questions about what actions, if any, should be taken by prosecutors and other court officials when people wanted by the law show up to testify in court.
Deputy Public Defender Todd R. Howeth, who accused Kilbride of misconduct, said defense witnesses will be too frightened to testify if prosecutors have them jailed on misdemeanor warrants.
In Kara Crecelius' case, she admitted at Wednesday's hearing that she had failed to pay $307 in fines from tickets in 1989 and 1991. Campbell ordered her to straighten out the bill. "I would like to get them cleared up within the next month," she said.
Howeth said of the woman's arrest, "The reason this is remarkable is both the prosecutor and the investigating officer said this has never happened in their careers.
"The case law says unless there are absolutely compelling reasons, the D.A.'s office is not to arrest defense witnesses," Howeth said. "It does send a bad message in these cases that when you call witnesses, they could go to jail."
Kilbride--a former Ventura school board member--declined to comment, saying the case has not been resolved. Other officials in the district attorney's office said Kilbride was asking the Sheriff's Department to arrest Kara Crecelius only after she testified.
Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Kevin J. McGee said the prosecutor's office has no specific policy on the matter. Unlike peace officers, prosecutors are not legally bound to alert authorities when they come across someone wanted by the law.
Prosecutors are prohibited from doing anything that would chill a defendant's right to present evidence.
"Frankly, from where I sit, this appears to be a kind of allegation that public defenders are making more and more frequently, and perhaps doing so for tactical reasons," McGee said.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Matthew J. Hardy, who represented Kilbride at Wednesday's hearing, called the complaint against his colleague disgraceful.
Hardy also accused the public defender's office of staging a "dog-and-pony show for the press." Only one news organization covered the hearing.
"I think this is a witch hunt, and I think to subject Mr. Kilbride to this type of abuse is offensive," Hardy said.
"This is harassment. . . . I think it's time to say enough ," he said. "There was no misconduct here. There's nothing here except a chance for our public defender's office to do what it loves to do. And that is to smear the prosecutor's office."
Hardy urged Campbell to rule that Kilbride had not conducted himself in an inappropriate manner. He said the focus should be on John Crecelius and his felony convictions.
"Let's sentence the crook," Hardy suggested.
As he left the courtroom, Hardy was still fuming. He said the complaint is a defense maneuver to help get John Crecelius off the hook.
"It's no wonder that the people have no faith in lawyers," he groused. "It's disgraceful and makes me ashamed that I decided to become a lawyer."
Howeth, however, defended his complaint. He said he hopes Campbell grants his client a new trial on grounds of witness intimidation.
"All I'm doing is litigating the facts," he said.