Thursday, April 29, 2010

Yuba County's Santana, Vasquez case echoes
Hollywood's more famous People v. Polanski

One seldom gets to compare Yuba-Sutter, two smallish counties in Northern California, and Hollywood, but we can do so in the matters of People v. Santana, Vasquez and People v. Roman Polanski.

First filed in Yuba County Superior Court in 2008, the felony case alleges attorneys Jesse Santana and David Vasquez unethically worked out a deal that Joseph Griesa would pay $100,000 to settle out of court a minor girl’s claim that Griesa had sexually harassed her.

The Polanski case was first filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in 1977. In it, the filmmaker was accused of having illegal sexual intercourse with a minor girl at a Hollywood movie star party.

As part of a plea deal with the prosecution, Polanski spent three months in custody for three months of "diagnostic evaluation," but then fled Los Angeles for Europe upon learning that the state court judge was expected to renege on their plea agreement.

That alleged judicial double-cross became the focus of Polanski’s continuing legal battle.

Santana and Vasquez continued their active law practices while vigorously fighting the charges against them in a case that has bounced back and forth in court for some two years now.

While case files mount volume upon volume, arguments have yet to move beyond the pre-trial hearing stage. .

For his part, Polanski – who is now in custody in Switzerland -- continued to make award-winning films while he fought the charges which languished in legal limbo until a recent Second District Court of appeals court denied his request to be sentenced in absentia.

That court also refused both to authorize a special counsel to review the ancient and "unseal secret testimony by its former prosecutor, apparently detailing judicial and prosecutorial misconduct."

The court also dismissed a request by the 13-year-old victim in the original Polanski case – now a grown woman named Samantha Geimer – to have the case dismissed.

In a March 23 filing, Geimer’s lawyer, Lawrence Silver, called the continued prosecution of Polanski of being "stale of fact and devoid of current purpose except to advance a political career. Justice is not made of such stuff."

The diagnostic study of Polanski recommended probation. But Laurence Ritterand, the judge in the case, allegedly bowed to pressure from the media and the LA DA’s office, threatened to renege on the plea bargain agreement and sentence Polanski to a much longer term in jail. Faced with that prospect Polanski high-tailed it for Europe.

Polanski’s original defense lawyer and the original prosecuting deputy district attorney both made statements at the time accusing Rittenband of misconduct.

Law commentators have since asserted that the political nature to the various court rulings in the Polanski matter have all but acknowledged the illegality of Rittenband’s actions.

The politics surrounding the Santana, Vasquez case provoke similar doubts and question.

A reputed liberal and demonstrably defense-oriented attorney, Santana was considered a front-runner for a gubernatorial appointment to a vacant Sutter County judgeship when the charges were filed.

The charges were filed in such a way that the accusing prosecutors could avoid a public preliminary hearing in which the Santana and Vasquez could question the source and motives of the allegations.

For some, the timing of the charges was optimum. It stalled matters just long enough for the governor to appoint another judgeship candidate to the Sutter County bench, one more to the liking of local conservatives.

This courtroom drama could have played out differently. Santana and Vasquez might have simply taken note of the Sutter County judicial appointment, chalked it all up to experience and local political conniving and let it all disappear into the mists of the prosecutor’s lower drawer where certain unfiled cases sometimes go.

But two hard-earned reputations for meritorious ethical conduct were on the line. Santana and Vasquez fought back.

While Polanski’s drama has been playing in re-runs and sequels for some 33 years, the Santana, Vasquez mini-series has only been on the air for a mere two years. Still, that’s a long, long time when one is living under a shadow and shelling out legal costs and fees.

But now it is going to trial – or will soon, if all the pre-trial maneuverings ever end.

All Yuba County judges have either been otherwise tied up or have declined to hear the case, being so familiar with the parties on both sides in question. Retired Nevada County Judge John Darlington has parachuted in to oversee the matter.

For appearances sake if for no other reason, two out-of-town prosecutors from the state Attorney General’s Office were imported to try the case. They are deputy attorney generals Michael Canzoneri and David Lowe.

Santana and Vasquez have engaged other attorneys to represent them in the case – recalling, perhaps, the old adage that only a fool has himself for a lawyer. Craig Leri represents Santana. Michael Barrette represents Vasquez.

Now, all the politics and personalities involved may finally emerge into the harsh public light.

Evidentiary hearings in People v. Santana, Vasquez, YCSC #08-825, are expected to resume 2:30 p.m. April 30, in superior court department #7.


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