Orange County DA fires high-ranking prosecutor who seeks judgeship
A decade after being selected prosecutor of the year by a state association, one of the highest-ranking executives in the Orange County District Attorney’s Office was fired amid his mounting bid for an Orange County Superior Court judge position, the office confirmed Wednesday.
Ebrahim Baytieh was fired following an independent law firm’s investigation into his handling of the prosecution of Paul Gentile Smith, a murder defendant who won a new trial last year following allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.
Baytieh did not immediately respond to multiple messages seeking comment.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer issued a statement saying he would not tolerate a “win at all costs mentality.”
“My prosecutors will not violate the Constitution and the rights of defendants in order to get convictions,” Spitzer said. “On August 5, 2021, I was forced to make the difficult decision to concede a new trial to Paul Gentile Smith, who was convicted of a murder in 2010 in which he is accused of brutally mutilating his victim and setting him on fire.
“He had been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. This decision was as a result of allegations that a prosecutor failed under the prior administration to turn over information about an informant to the defense. I immediately hired an independent law firm to investigate whether there was a failure by the prosecutor to properly turn over discovery and whether the prosecutor was truthful in all subsequent and related inquiries by the United States Department of Justice.
“Yesterday, that independent investigation was completed. As a result of those findings, the prosecutor is no longer employed by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.”
The California District Attorneys Association chose Baytieh its Outstanding Prosecutor of the Year in 2012.
Spitzer’s predecessor, Tony Rackauckas, turned to Baytieh to train prosecutors on disclosing evidence to defense attorneys following allegations of what are known as Brady violations in the handling of the case against the worst mass killer in Orange County history, Scott Dekraai.
However, Baytieh himself was accused of misconduct of his own in the so-called jailhouse-informant scandal. Smith’s attorneys argued that authorities illegally used inmates to pump their client for information.
Smith’s attorneys, Scott Sanders and Sara Ross, are seeking to recuse the Orange County District Attorney’s Office from the case on an outrageous governmental misconduct motion to dismiss charges. Baytieh was intended to be a witness in the hearings.
The defense attorneys argue in court papers that Baytieh led a “coordinated prosecution team effort to conceal evidence” from Smith, “while deceiving his counsel, fact-finders, and courts through an ever-expanding output of misconduct.”
They said Baytieh “concealed for more than a decade a recorded interviews with informant Jeffrey Platt, in which Platt admitted that he and two other inmates were intentionally placed in defendant’s dayroom group (in jail), where they then repeatedly questioned the defendant about his crime until he made incriminatory statements, spoke about his work in and out of custody as part of a sting operation on the case intended to collect evidence of a hit against lead (sheriff’s) investigator Raymond Wert, and played recorded calls and text messages with another alleged co-conspirator, Tina Smith, in the purported effort against Wert.”
When it became clear that Platt had violated Smith’s constitutional rights, the attorneys argued, Baytieh turned to another informant, Arthur Palacios, who, they say, falsely claimed he overheard Smith talking about the murder.
“Baytieh misled the grand jury by eliciting testimony from Palacios designed to falsely portray Platt as an authentic co-conspirator with the defendant in the alleged effort to kill or assault Wert, even though he knew that Platt was an informant,” the attorneys argued.
They further claimed that Baytieh “hid” court papers that would have shown Palacios was offered pay to do informant work in the jail just months before he was to take the stand in the Smith trial. That information surfaced last month for the first time, the attorneys argued.
They say Platt was released from custody at some point to continue working on the sting operation and prosecutors attempted to help him with a criminal case in San Diego.
Once Platt was released, he was replaced by Art Longacre, a state prisoner who was brought into Orange County Jail to testify in another murder trial Baytieh was prosecuting, the attorneys said. Baytieh hid that fact from Smith’s prior defense attorney, the lawyers argued.
Smith was granted an evidentiary hearing on the allegations, but on the eve of the hearing, prosecutors said the sheriff’s deputies subpoenaed in the case were going to invoke their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, so prosecutors asked Orange County Superior Court Judge Patrick Donahue to grant a new trial.
Smith was convicted of first-degree murder with special circumstances for torture in the Oct. 24, 1988, killing of 29-year-old Robert Haugen.
Smith and Haugen had been friends for eight or nine years and Smith was a regular customer of Haugen, who was a marijuana dealer, Baytieh said during the defendant’s trial.
Haugen was stabbed 18 times, and his nude body was found on his bed with a pillow over his head and a large stereo speaker between his legs that was set afire.
Smith was linked to the killing after he was convicted in a domestic violence case in Las Vegas in 2007 and police obtained a DNA sample from the defendant.
Investigators found blood spots in Haugen’s apartment that they eventually matched to Smith.
Smith also pleaded guilty before sentencing in 2010 to conspiring with his then-girlfriend to solicit an attack on the lead investigator in his murder case.
Attorney Fred Fascenelli, who is running against Baytieh for judge, said, “the prospect that a person who has committed a heinous crime could be released due to prosecutorial misconduct should frighten us all. However, having a justice system that does not respect the Constitution places every citizen in jeopardy and endangers society and the equal protection of law for us all.”
Sanders said, “It appears the firm hired by the OCDA reached conclusions identical to our own, which is that the prosecutor led a decade-long cover up of key evidence in the case and hid the misconduct during the Department of Justice’s investigation, which is currently open. We obviously are looking forward to studying the report closely.
“We will also soon show how during the years that followed Mr. Smith’s conviction, the evidence of this misconduct was also improperly withheld in numerous other cases because of the fear that someday Mr. Smith would find out the truth. What has happened is unconscionable.”