A highly charged case that cast a spotlight on the violent rhetoric of southeast Los Angeles County politics ended Thursday when a judge dismissed seven felony counts against South Gate Treasurer Albert Robles.
Superior Court Judge John A. Torribio, ruling one month after a jury deadlocked on charges that Robles threatened four people, said he believed no jury would ever agree on whether Robles' actions were criminal.
The judge's ruling was the second defeat for the district attorney's public integrity unit in two weeks. Last week, prosecutors dropped a conflict-of-interest charge against former Bell Gardens Councilwoman Maria S. Chacon, after her attorney unveiled a novel defense strategy on the eve of trial.
In the Robles case, defense attorneys argued that his talk of raping and killing political opponents was political speech not to be taken literally. Jurors split almost evenly, with some believing that Robles had crossed the line and others saying his language amounted to heated but ultimately harmless "macho" talk.
"This court firmly believes that no reasonable jury would ever reach a verdict of guilty or not guilty no matter how many times this case was tried, and that to put the defendant and the community through another trial would be a miscarriage of justice," Torribio said in a written ruling after a brief hearing in Norwalk Superior Court.
Robles, upon hearing the decision, bowed his head for several minutes, seemingly overwhelmed. He declined to comment on the case, which he had described earlier in his characteristic tough-talk style as a personal showdown between him and Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley.
Robles' attorney Thomas M. Brown said: "We're very happy that the judge acknowledged what we have said from the very beginning.... Albert looks forward to going back and serving the community of South Gate."
Robles still faces two counts of possessing illegal weapons in a separate case scheduled for trial in March.
Defending his public integrity unit, Cooley said he didn't expect every prosecution to go smoothly when he unveiled the unit two years ago. Because district attorneys in the past had not pursued such cases, he said, his prosecutors have ventured into uncharted legal waters, with many obscure laws being tested for the first time in California.
Prosecuting Robles, he said, was the right message to send. Cooley said he will not appeal the ruling but added that other ongoing investigations in South Gate involve Robles.
"In my nearly 30 years, I don't believe this office has ever been as proactive and dedicated to pursuing public integrity issues on as deeply or as broadly or as many different fronts," Cooley said.
But others say the public integrity unit has at times abused its powers, raiding officials' homes with guns drawn and pursuing cases based on flawed interpretations of obscure laws.
"Everybody, including myself, wants integrity in public affairs," said Michael Nasatir, attorney for Chacon, the former Bell Gardens councilwoman. "Unfortunately, the district attorney has been overzealous and has gone too far in some of his prosecutions."
Robles was arrested last April after a three-month investigation. Prosecutors alleged that he had made several threatening statements directed at two state legislators, a political consultant and a police lieutenant. The statements were allegedly made to intermediaries who relayed the information.
Robles said that if he could get away with it, he would rape state Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier) and kill her husband, Leo Briones. He also said he would like to take Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh (D-Los Angeles) to Tijuana, put him in the trunk of a car and blow his brains out.
Robles' attorneys never denied that he made the statements directed at the legislators, but said it was the equivalent of trash talk, especially when taken in the context of South Gate's superheated political environment.
Prosecutors had to prove that the statements caused the officials to fear for their safety. Though many jurors concluded that Escutia, the lone female victim, was fearful, and reached a 10-2 guilty vote on the charges involving her, they said the male targets did not seem frightened by Robles' statements.
South Gate officials, who have criticized Cooley's investigations as an assault on democracy, hailed the judge's ruling.
"With these distractions now behind the city, the elected officials of South Gate can now go back to the business of making South Gate the best city in California," said Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba.
But Robles' critics said they remain confident that residents will oust him in a recall election later this month. Public opinion, they say, is not split on Robles' record as an elected official.
"If Albert was a pinata, there would be a line of people a block long waiting to take a swing at him. Everyone wants a little stick time," said Frank "Pico" Rivera, a police officer working on the recall effort.
Since the trial, Robles has been generally low-key at council meetings, but residents occasionally see flashes of his famous temper and use of colorful language.
At a recent meeting, he called longtime opponent Councilman Hector De La Torre a narizon, Spanish slang for a person with a big nose.
In the Chacon case, the former Bell Gardens councilwoman was charged with engineering her appointment to an administrative post through vote- and influence-peddling.
Nasatir, her attorney, was prepared to argue, in an entrapment defense, that Chacon was merely following the advice of the city attorney, who had told her the appointment was lawful.
After a judge decided to allow the defense strategy, prosecutors decided to drop the charge. They have appealed the ruling, saying that such a defense strategy, if upheld, would allow any city official to escape prosecution by using an attorney's advice to excuse illegal activity.
Nasatir said prosecutors are picking on small-city politicians who are just trying to run their cities honestly and fairly.
Cooley called the judge's ruling bizarre and expressed confidence that it would be overturned on appeal.
Prosecutors plan to refile charges against Chacon, Cooley said.