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10 Votes to Acquit Says D.A. Blew It

Because county prosecutors are mere mortals, we can’t demand perfection. They don’t have to win every case they take to trial.

But we’d like to believe that anyone they haul into court with a murder charge wrapped around his neck is the right guy. And as an added bonus, that they can at least come close to proving it to a jury.

If you disagree -- that is, if the plight of the accused doesn’t faze you -- look up what it costs to defend yourself in court. Or go spend some time in jail awaiting trial. Or imagine how people look at you when they find out you’re on trial for murder.

Having never faced those situations, I’ll play a hunch: It ain’t no fun.

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That puts a moral burden on prosecutors to take the right people to trial. In deciding last week not to retry Hugh “Randy” McDonald for the 1997 murder of Janie Pang, prosecutors proved they blew it the first time around.

Who says they blew it? How about the jury, which voted 10-2 a month ago to acquit McDonald.

Had jurors split 6-6 or 7-5 or anywhere close, I wouldn’t be so cranky. But 10-2 tells you that prosecutors badly misjudged the evidence and raises legitimate questions about why he was tried in the first place.

Prosecutors are supposed to be guided by a legal canon that says they don’t take someone to trial without a “good-faith belief” they can get a conviction. I’d love to hear their thinking on McDonald.

From the outset, they had no physical evidence and no plausible motive. The backbone of the case apparently was that McDonald, an attorney, had done business with Pang’s husband and that, within days of her murder, McDonald left Orange County for Northern California, where he faked his suicide. He then lived under various false identities until his arrest in 2001. Prosecutors argued that the timing of McDonald’s disappearance, which he attributed to a downward-spiraling life, was just too suspicious.

I’d buy that if anything else linked him to Janie Pang. Otherwise, he’s just a guy who disappeared the week she died.

“In a perfect world,” says McDonald’s attorney, Michael Molfetta, “if you’re going to prosecute someone for a capital crime, you better know he did it. I don’t think they came anywhere close to proving that.”

I put in a call to Deputy Dist. Atty. Walt Schwarm, who prosecuted McDonald, in the hopes he’d give me a plausible post-mortem, but didn’t hear back from him.

Molfetta says the fault lies not with Schwarm’s handling of the case but with the decision -- presumably made by more people than just Schwarm -- to take McDonald to trial. Molfetta lays much of the blame on the D.A.'s investigators, who, he says, gave prosecutors a skewed view of the evidence.

Even though McDonald was bound over at a preliminary hearing, Molfetta says it revealed holes in the case that wouldn’t be patched in a full trial. “There comes a certain point when a prosecutor has to sit back and realistically evaluate the case he has,” Molfetta says. “I don’t think that was done in this case.”

Perhaps the D.A.'s office feels OK because McDonald ‘fessed up to unsavory deeds before and after his departure from Orange County. Perhaps it thinks he’s not very nice and that the four months he spent in jail after his arrest are no big deal.

But as McDonald had to publicly confess his sins, so should the D.A.'s office. With flimsy evidence, it tried to send a guy to prison for life.

Forget the waste of time and money. Ten to two for acquittal. What’s the price tag on the D.A.'s loss of credibility?

Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.

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Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at The Times’ Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to dana.parsons@latimes.com.


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