Child-Murder Conviction Tossed; L.A. Coroner’s Credibility Cited
A state appeals court has thrown out the murder conviction of a Los Angeles man, faulting prosecutors for not telling his defense that a deputy coroner who took the witness stand had a history of changing his testimony.
The justices cited five instances in which Dr. James K. Ribe changed his findings in homicide cases, including one that led to the 1997 release of a woman convicted of murder.
The court, in a ruling issued earlier this month, vacated Jose A. Salazar’s child-murder conviction because his lawyer was not advised of Ribe’s record by prosecutors.
“Had the jury been aware of Dr. Ribe’s credibility problems, which would have cast doubt on the prosecution’s investigation, the case would have been cast in a different light with a reasonable probability of a different result,” wrote 2nd District Court of Appeal Justice J. Gary Hastings in a unanimous ruling by the three-member panel.
Ribe, a senior medical examiner who has worked for the Los Angeles County coroner’s office since 1987, continues to testify in cases. He was on vacation on Friday and unavailable for comment.
Chief Medical Examiner Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran said he is not disturbed by cases in which Ribe has changed his opinion. “To me a credible witness is one who tells the truth. Ribe tells the truth,” he said, calling the veteran medical examiner “an honest, top-notch forensic pathologist.”
He said new evidence during a criminal investigation might lead to changes of opinion involving causes of death. “I don’t want anybody to tell me not to change my mind if I have new information.”
He said he has not changed Ribe’s assignment.
The district attorney’s office is expected to appeal the ruling. They said Friday they have not yet decided whether to retry Salazar, who remains in custody pending their decision.
Prosecutors are required to disclose all evidence they have that bears on guilt or innocence, including exculpatory material that may be used to discredit government witnesses, including medical examiners.
The day of Salazar’s 1997 conviction, a North Hollywood woman was freed in a separate case after spending 21 months in prison for her conviction in the beating death of a 2-year-old boy. She was freed because Ribe altered his testimony on which her conviction had been based.
The case against Salazar was built around Ribe’s expert testimony about when the fatal injuries occurred. There were no eyewitnesses or motive or forensic evidence linking Salazar to the head injuries suffered by the 11-month-old child. There was not even a definitive cause of death.
Four people, including Salazar, had custody of infant Adriana Krygoski during the period of time in which the injuries occurred, the appeals court said. Salazar was home alone with the child when she went into convulsions and was rushed to the hospital. At trial, a defense witness testified that shoulder injuries would have prevented Salazar from causing the deadly blows.
“I really think they got the wrong guy,” said Gail Harper, Salazar’s appellate attorney. She accused prosecutors of knowingly concealing evidence of Ribe’s weaknesses as an expert witness even after Salazar was convicted.
“I was stonewalled every step of the way,” she said.
In the Salazar decision, judges noted striking similarities between the case and the bungled Van Nuys child-murder case in which Eve Wingfield was eventually exonerated in the notorious beating death of Lance Helms, her boyfriend’s 2-year-old son.
In both cases, Ribe’s timeline resulted in detectives focusing on one suspect to the exclusion of others, the court wrote. Even the detectives assigned to reinvestigate Helms’ murder were the same as those in the Salazar case.
Concerns about Ribe’s testimony prompted the district attorney’s office to create a “Ribe discovery box” with the background that should be given to the defense in the cases in which the coroner was called to testify.
Yet Deputy Dist. Atty. Jennifer Turkat, who prosecuted Salazar, was unaware of the box’s existence, the court concluded. Judges blamed Turkat’s supervisors for not notifying her.
“Neither Turkat’s lack of knowledge of Dr. Ribe’s inconsistent statements, or her failure to appreciate the relevance of that knowledge, absolves the district attorney’s office of the duty to disclose the information,” the appellate panel concluded.
Lael Rubin, special counsel to Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, said information on Ribe was added to a new database earlier this month, after the appellate court decision.
“The district attorney now says the extent to which the Court of Appeal ... was angered by what occurred really happened because there was not a procedure in place” to assemble and distribute exculpatory evidence on expert witnesses, such as Ribe, who often testify at trial, said Rubin, who developed and helped implement the office’s current policy on the dissemination of such information to defense attorneys.
“That would not happen today,” she said.