Antonovich Sought Release for Teen Suspect
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich wrote a letter to a judge asking that a teenage murder defendant be released pending trial, The Times has learned.
The letter on the supervisor’s letterhead and signed “Mike” noted that the defendant is “a very good student and is active in serving the Armenian community.”
Antonovich’s request, however, was unsuccessful.
Two years ago, Antonovich intervened with a judge on behalf of campaign contributors in an unrelated lawsuit--an action called “reprehensible” by a state appellate court.
In the current case, Antonovich believes he was justified in writing on behalf of the defendant, said an aide, Lori Howard.
“He doesn’t think there’s anything illegal or improper in giving a character reference to someone who’s an outstanding member of the community,” Howard said. “It is unusual, but he certainly has in the past.”
She said Antonovich wrote the letter, dated June 3, after a request from the defendant’s parents, whom he has seen sporadically at Armenian church functions. Howard said Antonovich was influenced by Archbishop Vatche Hovsepian of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, who sent a letter to the court vouching for the teen, Sayat Oruncakciel.
Los Angeles County Juvenile Court Judge Morton Rochman ordered Oruncakciel detained Thursday pending the disposition of his case.
Several judges said such letters from public officials are unusual. Presiding Superior Court Judge Robert Parkin said in the odd instance that letters are sent on official letterhead, judges usually ignore them. Public officials “shouldn’t do it, but they do it,” he said.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Darlene Schempp said it would be “improper” for public officials to use their position to get a defendant released pending trial.
“No one should try to use their influence on a judicial officer,” Schempp said.
Oruncakciel is one of six teenagers, most of them private-school educated, who are charged in the May killing of a 17-year-old at an Encino birthday party. Police said Abtin Tangestanifar was stabbed 11 times during a scuffle outside the party at a million-dollar home.
Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, said Garcetti would not comment on Antonovich’s involvement in the case.
“Personally, as a guy in the trenches, I am troubled that a public official would throw his name into a criminal prosecution,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Steve Belis, who is prosecuting the case.
He said the district attorney’s office had asked for Oruncakciel’s detention because the teen could flee to Turkey, where he has relatives, and because of the seriousness of the crime.
“Anyone who would stoop so low to commit this crime does pose a danger to society--irrespective of all those letters,” Belis said.
Prosecutors are seeking to have the teen and his co-defendants tried as adults.
Parkin said about a fifth of the Los Angeles Superior Court’s $250-million budget comes from the county. The rest is provided by the state.
In the case of the Antonovich letter two years ago, the supervisor was found to have intervened on behalf of campaign donors who were involved in a business lawsuit. The judge presiding over the case was a childhood friend of his.
A state appellate court found that there was enough evidence for jurors to conclude that “Antonovich had allowed his political supporters to induce him to attempt to influence a Superior Court Judge in a pending case.”
“This is unacceptable behavior,” according to the opinion, which was later left intact by the California Supreme Court. “That it was done in the context of the contemporaneous receipt of substantial political contributions from the individuals in whose favor the influence was sought makes it all the more reprehensible.”
Antonovich insisted that he made the call because of the businessman’s long-standing ties to his district’s large Armenian community and a heartfelt sympathy for a hard-working, honest man.
It is not illegal for a public official to write a character letter, said Matt Ross, a spokesman with the state attorney general’s office.
And the Board of Supervisors does not have a policy regarding the use of county letterhead, except regarding campaigning, according to Georgette Dame, the governing body’s senior deputy executive officer.
Parkin, the presiding Superior Court judge, said that, more than anything, such letters create an “awkward” situation for judges.
“Now you’ve got to ignore the letter or write back saying you can’t consider it,” he said.