O.C. D.A. made racist comments in case of Black defendant, former colleague alleges
An Orange County prosecutor who was fired last week previously wrote a memo detailing racist comments he alleged his boss, Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer, made while discussing the case of a Black murder defendant, according to copies of the internal documents obtained by The Times.
Former prosecutor Ebrahim Baytieh alleged in a memo dated Dec. 3 that during a meeting of top prosecutors on Oct. 1, Spitzer said that he knows “many black people who get themselves out of their bad circumstances and bad situations by only dating white women.”
Spitzer was discussing the case of a Black man, Jamon Buggs, charged with fatally shooting two people, allegedly because of jealousy over an ex-girlfriend, who is white, according to the memo.
However, Spitzer said on Wednesday that the words attributed to him in the memo were not correct.
What he actually said, he told The Times, was that he has seen Black men date white women to “improve their stature in the community.”
Spitzer fired Baytieh, who was once a close advisor, last week, citing an investigation into whether Baytieh withheld evidence from defense attorneys in a different murder case.
Baytieh’s firing and the disclosure of the memos, which were first referenced by nonprofit news site Voice of OC, come at a politically charged time.
Spitzer is running for reelection, with the primary in June, against two former Orange County prosecutors. Baytieh is running for Orange County Superior Court judge.
In the Dec. 3 memo, Baytieh listed the names of eight other prosecutors who attended the October meeting on whether they should seek the death penalty or life in prison for Buggs.
During a discussion about prior allegations of domestic violence against Buggs, Spitzer asked about the race of Buggs’ previous girlfriends, according to the memo.
Baytieh replied to his boss that the “race of the victims is completely irrelevant.”
According to Baytieh’s memo, he added that it would be “inappropriate ... to consider or give any weight to the race of the victims.”
But Spitzer persisted, the memo said.
After Spitzer made the remark about why Black men date white women, Baytieh said he pushed back again, stating again that the race of the victim should not be discussed in a decision about the appropriate punishment to seek. This time, according to the memo, Baytieh cited a recently signed law called the Racial Justice Act.
Spitzer then drew from his personal experience, according to the memo.
In college, Spitzer said, he knew a Black student who dated only white women.
According to the memo, which was addressed to defense attorneys in the Buggs case, Spitzer allegedly said he “knew for sure that this black student did so on purpose to get himself out of his bad circumstances and situations.”
Spitzer contends he said that the student dated white women “to enhance his status.”
“The only thing I stated was that I have seen Black men date white women in certain circles in order to have others around them be more accepting,” Spitzer wrote in a Jan. 30 letter filed in Orange County Superior Court.
Spitzer alleges Baytieh wrote the memo to retaliate against him after he commissioned the investigation into Baytieh’s actions in the other murder case.
“After reading his memo, I was completely and utterly disgusted by his characterization of a conversation regarding the race of Buggs ...” Spitzer wrote in the Jan. 30 letter. “Not only was it inaccurate, but it attempted to show my statements in the worst possible light, without explanation or context.”
A defense attorney representing Buggs declined to comment.
Baytieh did not return a phone call seeking comment.
The Dec. 3 memo was not sent to the defense attorneys, according to a source with knowledge of the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the case candidly.
Instead, Baytieh attached it to a second memo addressed to Spitzer, arguing that prosecutors were legally required to inform the defense about the comments.
Baytieh, a senior assistant district attorney, oversaw the homicide unit and was in charge of decisions on whether to turn evidence over to defense attorneys in homicide cases.
Prosecutors allege that Buggs, 47, fatally shot Darren Partch inside a Newport Beach apartment in April 2019, along with Partch’s friend, Wendi Miller.
Partch had met Buggs’ ex-girlfriend at the gym and exchanged some text messages with her. Prosecutors suspect that Buggs became jealous of Partch.
Throughout 2019, Buggs and the ex-girlfriend traded domestic violence allegations and sought restraining orders against each other, according to documents filed in Orange County Superior Court.
In January 2019, the woman filed an application for a restraining order alleging that Buggs broke into her Huntington Beach home at 3:30 a.m., walked upstairs into her bedroom and demanded to know whom she liked.
“I thought he was going to kill me,” she wrote in the application.
Three months later, Partch and Miller were found dead, and Buggs was charged with their murders.
Spitzer said in the interview Wednesday that he asked the questions during the October meeting about the race of Buggs’ former girlfriends to address the possible issue of cross racial identification — how well Buggs, as a Black man, could identify a white woman like Miller.
“I simply was exploring Buggs’ ability to identify, properly or not, the race of the female victim in that moment,” he said.
Baytieh’s second memo, to Spitzer, was dated Dec. 22, with Chief Asst. Dist. Atty. Shawn Nelson cc’d and the Dec. 3 memo attached.
Baytieh cited legal opinions by the lead prosecutor and the supervising prosecutor in the Buggs case, who both said the comments were “potentially discoverable” and should be given to the judge to determine whether defense attorneys should be informed about them.
Both prosecutors were named in the Dec. 3 memo as in attendance at the meeting where Spitzer made the comments.
In the Dec. 22 memo, Baytieh cited the Racial Justice Act, which prohibits prosecutors from seeking or obtaining a criminal conviction or imposing a sentence based upon race, ethnicity or national origin.
The law, passed in 2020, allows defendants to present evidence that the proceedings against them were tainted by racial bias.
The two other prosecutors also relied on that law in their legal analyses, Baytieh wrote in the memo.
But Baytieh said that Spitzer’s comments, as summarized in the Dec. 3 memo, should be given directly to Buggs’ attorneys.
“Please let me know if you have a preference regarding what procedure to follow in providing the discovery,” Baytieh wrote to Spitzer in the Dec. 22 memo.
On Jan. 7, Spitzer said, he asked Baytieh to repeat what was said during the October meeting.
Spitzer wrote in the Jan. 30 letter filed in court that Baytieh’s “recitation of what I said did not match what he wrote.”
On Jan. 21, Baytieh sent an email to Spitzer clarifying his statements, at Spitzer’s request.
In the email, which was obtained by The Times, Baytieh wrote that changing the words from “who get themselves out of their bad circumstances and bad situations by” to “who enhance their status by” dating white women “will allow the memo (in my opinion) to continue to be accurate...”
On Jan. 26, Spitzer announced that he was reassigning the Buggs case to a new prosecutor and supervisor.
For reasons that are unclear, Spitzer walled the new team off from the old team, including everyone from the “Special Circumstances Committee” who had attended the Oct. 1 meeting.
The old team was recused and forbidden from discussing the case with the new team, Spitzer said in a memo obtained by The Times.
The next day, Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. David Porter, the new prosecutor, submitted a court filing indicating that his office was not pursuing the death penalty against Buggs.
Months earlier, O.C. Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett had said the case was “presumptively a death case.”
Baytieh was once such a close advisor to Spitzer that the district attorney called him his “north star.”
Last week, Spitzer said Baytieh’s firing was connected to the prosecution of Paul Gentile Smith, who was sentenced to life without parole in 2010 for torturing and killing a friend.
Smith’s conviction was dismissed last year, and he is being retried, after his defense attorneys argued that information obtained from jailhouse informants had been withheld from them.
Spitzer did not explicitly say that Baytieh failed to properly turn over evidence to the defense.
But he said Baytieh’s firing was a result of an independent investigation into the issue that also probed whether Baytieh was truthful when questioned by federal investigators.
“I made it unequivocally clear when I ran … that I would not tolerate the ‘win at all costs’ mentality of the prior administration,” Spitzer said last week. “My prosecutors will not violate the Constitution and the rights of defendants in order to get convictions.”
Spitzer won the district attorney job over longtime incumbent Tony Rackauckas in 2018, in large part because of a scandal over prosecutors’ use of jailhouse informants that later extended to the Smith murder case.
Prickett, the judge in the Buggs case, also presided over the Smith case.
After granting Smith a new trial, Prickett recused himself because he had endorsed Baytieh’s run for judge.
“People who know me, including my colleagues, opposing counsel, and judicial officers, know that I always carried out my responsibilities by following the highest ethical standards,” Baytieh said in an email to supporters after he was fired.
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