Advertisement
Share

Discussion of ‘backdoor offer’ extended to murder defendant raises tensions in district attorney’s office

A many-storied building with close packed windows in a grid pattern rises into the sky
The Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, the L.A. County criminal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

One Friday night four years ago, Fernando Rojo Jr., 26, was sharing a cooler of beer with friends outside his parents’ home in South Los Angeles when a white SUV pulled up in front of them.

“Where you from?” someone in the car called out. Rojo and his five friends, who weren’t in a gang, didn’t respond. Their silence was met with gunfire. A bullet tore through Rojo’s back, piercing his heart.

Two weeks ago, the man who prosecutors say was driving the SUV appeared in court for a hearing. Rudy Dominguez, an admitted member of the 18th Street gang, was charged with Rojo’s murder, the attempted murder of Rojo’s five friends and six counts of discharging a firearm from a vehicle. If convicted, Dominguez, 24, faced a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole.

As the Dec. 15 hearing wound down, his lawyer, Deputy Public Defender Traci Blackburn, mentioned “an offer that was conveyed to me” — a deal that would send Dominguez to prison for seven years.

Advertisement

“From who?” Judge Mark S. Arnold asked, according to a transcript of the proceeding.

Blackburn said that Mario Trujillo, a newly-elevated member of Dist. Atty. George Gascón’s executive staff, had extended the offer to Dominguez’s previous attorney, Tiffiny Blacknell, a deputy public defender and a member of Gascón’s public policy committee during his campaign. Blackburn told the judge that Blacknell, from whom she’d recently inherited Dominguez’s case, had relayed Trujillo’s offer to her.

The deal’s disclosure startled both the judge and the line prosecutor assigned to the case. Blackburn told the judge she believed Trujillo was handling Dominguez’s prosecution, prompting the line prosecutor, Jeffrey Herring, to say, “It’s news to me that I’m not the attorney of record on this case.”

Blackburn emailed Trujillo a week after the hearing. She acknowledged Dominguez’s case was “serious and complicated,” but given his lack of criminal record and other “defensible issues,” she wanted to “explore the possibility of disposition,” according to correspondence reviewed by The Times. Trujillo told her to make the request with “the appropriate Head Deputy from our office.”

That supervisor, Head Deputy Dist. Atty. Larry Droeger, appeared in court Monday and told Arnold there was no offer on the table. Had Trujillo extended one, Droeger told the court, he did so outside the office’s policy of following a chain of command in cutting deals with defendants, a policy he said was important to guard against “improper influence or bias” or the perception of it.

Droeger, who oversees gang homicide prosecutions, said he had not been contacted by Dominguez’s lawyers about a potential offer and didn’t know of any deal that may have been extended outside his unit’s chain of command. “Whatever it was, it was not a valid offer in this case,” he said.

The judge seemed relieved.

“It’s a good thing,” Arnold said, “because there’s no way I could look myself in the mirror and live with an offer, a plea bargain, of seven years in this case.”

Though such a deal appears to no longer be in play, a member of Gascón’s executive staff extending what an attorney for Rojo’s family called “a sweetheart deal” to a murder defendant raises questions about the new administration’s willingness to bypass line prosecutors to intervene in individual cases — particularly the case of a defendant who had been represented by one of Gascón’s campaign allies. Blacknell was Dominguez’s attorney of record as recently as Oct. 10, court records show.

The episode underscores the tensions in a district attorney’s office that has seen unprecedented change since Gascón’s swearing-in three weeks ago. His decision to forgo sentencing enhancements and gang allegations drew support from the progressive base that propelled him to office but incensed some rank-and-file prosecutors whose views of their roles in the criminal justice system are fundamentally at odds with those of their new boss.

Max Szabo, a spokesman for Gascón’s transition team, said: “There is no offer in this case, and there has been no plea agreement.” Trujillo, Blacknell and Blackburn did not return messages seeking comment.

The prospect of a seven-year offer contrasts with a probation officer’s recommendation, made in a report filed with the court in 2019, that Dominguez deserved “nothing less than a long-term state prison commitment.” The probation officer described Dominguez as “a serious threat to innocent citizens” who has shown “absolutely no regard for human life,” the report says.

In Dominguez’s defense, Blackburn argued in court that he had no prior criminal history and was just 19 years old at the time of Rojo’s death.

Dominguez confessed to driving the car used in the shooting, according to testimony from a preliminary hearing. While not accused of firing the shots that killed Rojo, Dominguez was charged with his murder and the attempted murders of his five friends under a legal doctrine that holds that people who take an active role in a killing can be guilty of murder even if they do not pull the trigger or inflict the fatal wound themselves. This concept has been criticized by advocates of criminal justice reform.

Samuel Dordulian, a private attorney representing Rojo’s family, had asked the judge to take the case from the district attorney’s office and hand it to the California attorney general’s office. In arguing for why county prosecutors should be recused, Dordulian, a former deputy district attorney, said Trujillo had made a “backdoor offer” to Blacknell, whose proximity to Gascón’s administration amounted to a “clear conflict of interest.”

“She has direct access to George Gascón,” he said “She has direct contact with Mario Trujillo.”

Arnold declined his request for recusal.

The parties had returned to Arnold’s courtroom on Monday, two weeks after Dominguez’s attorney first disclosed the seven-year offer — only this time, neither Blackburn nor Blacknell, the lawyers previously representing Dominguez, were in court. Another deputy public defender, Jimmy Chu, told the judge he’d been asked to stand in. Neither Blackburn nor Blacknell would be representing Dominguez, who at the moment had no trial lawyer, Chu told the court.

Arnold expressed disappointment that Trujillo, Blackburn and Blacknell had not shown up.

“I was hoping [Trujillo] would be here today,” he said. “I’d really like to know what he based that offer on.”

Herring, the deputy district attorney assigned to Dominguez’s prosecution, told the judge that Trujillo had not contacted him about the case or asked to see the police reports that support the charges.

Dominguez was arrested two years after Rojo was killed. After his arrest, Dominguez admitted driving the car used in the shooting and acknowledged belonging to 18th Street’s 54 Tiny Locos set in South L.A., Refugio Garza, a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department, testified during a preliminary hearing last year.

Dominguez’s affiliation with 18th Street, one of the city’s largest gangs, dates to his time in high school, Garza said he was told. Black gang members had been beating up Dominguez until 18th Street gang members stepped in. “As a favor,” he explained to the detective.

The night Rojo was killed, an 18th Street gang member called Dominguez and said “it was time to repay a favor,” according to Garza.

Dominguez told the detective he agreed to drive some 18th Street gang members to seek revenge for an associate who’d been shot in the leg a day earlier. They blamed a rival gang, Playboys. At the time, Garza and another detective testified, Playboys were encroaching on 18th Street territory in the South L.A. neighborhood where Rojo’s family lived. Alleyways and walls were covered with the gangs’ dueling, crossed-out graffiti.

Dominguez drove to Playboys territory with an 18th Street member nicknamed “Psycho,” who was carrying a gun. They spotted a group gathered outside a house; the way the men were dressed — one person was wearing a hat — they thought they might be gang-affiliated, Garza testified.

Rojo’s friends testified that they had gathered outside his parents’ home, as they did every Friday night after getting off work, to split a cooler of beer.

Dominguez told the detective he circled the block and pulled to a stop in front of the group. “Psycho,” he said, stuck his head out of the car and called out: “Where you from?”

Rojo and his friends weren’t gang members. “We were just quiet, stunned,” one testified.

“Psycho” asked the question again, then opened fire, Dominguez said, according to Garza. Rojo was shot in the back and collapsed. One of his friends was shot in the leg. The others took cover behind cars or ran.

After the shooting, Dominguez told the detective, four gang members jumped him into 18th Street. He now has a tattoo of an “18” that extends from his shoulders to his lower back, according to Garza. He said Dominguez told him, “I have my barrio on my back.”


Advertisement