Attorney blasts conflict over prosecutor still on payroll of LA County Public Defender’s Office

A victims rights attorney has asked a judge to remove a Los Angeles County prosecutor from the case of a convicted killer contesting his death penalty sentence because the prosecutor appears to be on the payroll of the defense.

Documents obtained through a public records request show Deputy District Attorney Diana Teran remains employed with the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office, where she is paid $218,042 annually while she is on loan to the District Attorney’s Office, attorney Kathleen Cady said in motion filed last week in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

“The mental gymnastics one must employ to figure out what it means to have a public defender on loan to the District Attorney’s Office is frankly mind-boggling,” the motion says. “It is inconceivable that the district attorney, the public defender and whomever at county counsel or the Board of Supervisors’ office approved this arrangement were unable to perceive any irregularity with this arrangement.”

Cady represents family members of 79-year-old Elmer Benson and his wife, Gladys Benson, 74, who were stabbed to death in 1996 inside their South Gate home by Samuel Zamudio, who owed the couple money. Zamudio was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.

Disqualify DA’s Office

Cady’s motion requests that Superior Court Judge Roger Ito disqualify the District Attorney’s Office and, specifically, Teran and fellow prosecutor Shelan Joseph from hearings involving Zamudio’s habeas corpus petition, in which he seeks to have his death penalty set aside, and instead transfer the case to the California Attorney General’s Office.

“The victims do not seek to insert themselves into the legal arguments of the habeas claims,” says the motion. “They do assert that they have a right to have an unbiased prosecutor assigned to their case to fairly and ethically evaluate that and make those legal decisions.”

Cady described Teran’s apparent dual role as a public defender and prosecutor on loan to the District Attorney’s Office as an “inherent conflict of interest.”

Still paid by Public Defender’s Office

“The Public Defender’s Office continues to pay her salary of over $218,000 per year,” says the motion. “It is inconceivable that the Public Defender’s Office would pay that amount of money and essentially give up a staff position without deriving some benefit from that expenditure.”

Judith Green, a spokesperson for the Public Defender’s Office, referred questions regarding Teran’s employment to the District Attorney’s Office.

The job-sharing arrangement for Teran’s services isn’t unusual, Alex Bastian, special adviser to District Attorney George Gascón, said Friday

“Ms. Teran’s salary comes out of the Los Angeles District Attorney office budget and that has been the case since she first started,” he said in an email. “Her employment here was approved by the county’s Department of Human Resources and these types of employment arrangements are common throughout the county,” Bastian said.

He said a continuance has been requested so Gascon’s office can respond to Cady’s motion in writing. “Ms. Cady’s motion lacks merit and we are confident it will be denied,” he said.

Bastian did not disclose how much the District Attorney’s Office is paying Teran or whether her employment constitutes a conflict of interest. However, records show she is receiving $8,311 a month from the District Attorney’s Office.

Arrangement ‘looks questionable’

Gregory C. Keating, who teaches ethics for the USC Gould School of Law, said Teran’s dual roles with the prosecution and defense “raises questions and looks questionable.”

“It creates an appearance (of a conflict of interest) that won’t inspire confidence in the integrity of the justice system,” he said. “It would be better if she wasn’t working on both sides because it may look like she has divided loyalties. It would be better if she left the Public Defender’s Office and joined the District Attorney’s Office.”

A separate conflict of interest exists with Joseph’s assignment to the case, Cady alleges. From August 1996 until March, Joseph was a deputy public defender responsible for all death penalty cases, the motion says. She joined the District Attorney’s Office on April 1 and now handles prosecution of capital habaes corpus cases, Cady said.

The motion says that on Jan. 14, while Joseph was still employed by the Public Defender’s Office, she submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Gascon, who is being sued by Association of Deputy District Attorneys over the legality of his controversial sentencing policies

“The elected District Attorney has knowingly assigned one deputy public defender and borrowed another public defender employee and assigned them to the prosecution of this case.” Cady’s motion says.

Latest controversy

The dust-up surrounding Teran and Joseph is the latest controversy involving the reform-minded Gascon and what some prosecutors say is his cozy relationship with the Public Defender’s Office.

In February, the Association of Deputy District Attorneys and the Los Angeles Police Protective League blasted Gascon for his hiring of controversial Deputy Public Defender Tiffiny Blacknell, a political supporter who has described police officers as “barbarians” and advocated abolishing prisons.

“Once again, Gascón is thumbing his nose at crime victims by hiring someone who wants to abolish prisons, defund public safety, and who has expressed outright hatred toward police officers,” Craig Lally, president of the police union, said at the time. “With murders and shootings at a 10-year high, do we really need criminal defense attorneys on both sides of the aisle?”

Two prosecutors are suing the District Attorney’s Office alleging they have faced retaliation for refusing to carry out Gascon’s policies.

Additionally, 27 cities have adopted resolutions expressing no confidence in Gascon, whose sweeping social justice policies including ending the practice of prosecuting juveniles in the adult court system, regardless of the seriousness, and eliminating sentencing enhancements.

A hearing on Cady’s motion is scheduled Sept. 14 in court in Norwalk.

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