Judge recuses himself in Sunset Beach murder case due to endorsement of embattled prosecutor
An Orange County Superior Court judge has recused himself from overseeing a murder trial because he endorsed the lead prosecutor who allegedly withheld important evidence in the case.
Judge Gregg L. Prickett is being replaced by Judge Michael Cassidy in the case of Paul Gentile Smith, who was granted a retrial after formerly being convicted in 2010 of stabbing a Sunset Beach man to death.
Prickett endorsed Ebrahim Baytieh, who is running for Superior Court judge. Assistant public defenders Scott Sanders and Sara Ross allege in a motion filed last week that Baytieh concealed evidence in Smith’s case for a decade.
“At the center of this litigation are allegations of brazenly unlawful and unethical actions demonstrating and unrelenting win-at-all-costs effort led by Baytieh that rivals any in this county’s history,” the motion reads. “Baytieh led a coordinated prosecution team effort to conceal evidence from Defendant, while deceiving his counsel, fact-finders, and courts through an ever-expanding output of misconduct.”
Smith was sentenced to life in state prison for torture and murder after he stabbed his longtime high school friend Robert Haugen so many times that he almost decapitated him in his Sunset Beach apartment in 1988. He then set the apartment on fire.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Patrick Donahue granted Smith a retrial last month after sheriff’s deputies declined to testify in court about their alleged misuse of illegal informants to obtain incriminating information from accused defendants. Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer’s office requested the new trial amid a set of hearings that were requested by Sanders and Ross regarding whether Smith’s constitutional rights were violated when he was allegedly targeted by informants. Some of the most damning evidence that led to Smith’s conviction came from conversations he had with a jailhouse informant.
Smith’s case is intertwined with a jailhouse snitch scandal Sanders uncovered during the trial of Scott Dekraai, who was responsible for the county’s worst mass shooting, killing eight people inside of a Seal Beach salon in 2011. Sanders found that Orange County sheriff’s deputies and prosecutors had targeted high-profile defendants with jailhouse informants to obtain confessions and incriminating information, a violation of their constitutional right to have an attorney with them. An Orange County judge ended up removing former Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas’ office from the case.
When Smith was booked at the Orange County Jail, he was placed in L-20, which was identified during the informant scandal as one of two “snitch tanks” where high-value defendants and informants were routinely placed.
Sanders has said that three informants — Art Palacios, Paul Martin and Jeff Platt — then worked to get information from Smith. The most conclusive evidence against Smith came from Palacios, who testified that Smith had admitted the murder to him. However, Sanders said that the two other informants were concealed from the defense.
Sanders has said that Baytieh intentionally withheld information on the informants from the defense. Baytieh was a high-ranking member of Rackauckas’ administration and is now Spitzer’s senior assistant district attorney. Baytieh regularly argued against the existence of the Rackauckas department’s use of jailhouse informants as the scandal played out over the years.
Last week’s motion says that Baytieh concealed a 2009 interview of Platt from the defense until 2019. In the interview, Platt said he and two other inmates were intentionally placed in Smith’s dayroom in jail, where they questioned him until he made incriminating statements.
The motion says Baytieh then called Palacios to testify, who claimed he was in the “right place in the jail at the right time” when Smith talked about his crime. According to the defense, Baytieh would have known due to Platt’s interview that the confession would have been obtained at the urging and repeated questioning of the informants, not from being in the right place at the right time. The defense also alleges that Baytieh hid an important file revealing that Palacios was offered money by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department for his informant work months prior to his testimony.
Baytieh also allegedly misled a Grand Jury by eliciting testimony from Palacios presenting Platt as being involved in a plot to kill or assault lead investigator Raymond Wert, though Platt was working with law enforcement. The motion says that Baytieh also hid an important file on Platt, which would have revealed that he was working as an informant.
The defense attorneys also contend that Baytieh never disclosed his connection with Art Longacre, who replaced Platt as an informant when he was released. The motion says Baytieh transferred Longacre to the Orange County Jail from state prison to provide jailhouse testimony in another murder case.
The motion also says Baytieh failed to add members of the Sheriff’s Department who engaged in misconduct while working on the Smith case to the Brady notification list, which is a record that district attorney’s offices are supposed to update with the names of law enforcement personnel who have records of dishonesty, criminality and other issues that could affect their credibility as witnesses.
“Since this matter relates to a case currently pending in court, it will be inappropriate and unethical for me to comment in the media on the case because the proper administration of the justice system requires that all such pending matters be litigated and resolved in a court of law and not in the media,” Baytieh said in an email on Tuesday.
D.A. spokeswoman Kimberly Edds said in an email that the department has hired an outside law firm to conduct an independent investigation into the handling of the Smith case.
“That investigation is ongoing and as such we as the district attorney’s office will not be commenting further at this time,” Edds said.
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