SANTA ANA (CNS) – A Newport Beach police lieutenant complained to an Orange County Superior Court judge about District Attorney Todd Spitzer’s reassignment of his prosecution team in a double-murder case after Spitzer raised the issue of race in the case, according to a letter obtained today by City News Service.
Acting police Lt. Court Depweg wrote a letter on Feb. 3 to Judge Gregg Prickett regarding the case of Jamon Buggs, who is charged with killing 48- year-old Wendi Sue Miller of Costa Mesa, and 38-year-old Darren Donald Partch of Newport Beach in April 2019.
Depweg said Spitzer reassigned the case to Deputy District Attorney Dave Porter and Assistant District Attorney Susan Price without ever consulting the victims or detectives involved in the case. He also said he felt compelled to alert the judge about race-related comments Spitzer allegedly made during an October meeting with prosecutors consider whether to seek the death penalty against Buggs.
According to a memo written in December by former Assistant District Attorney Ebrahim Baytieh, who was recently fired by Spitzer, the district attorney asked during the October meeting about the race of Buggs’ prior girlfriends and alleged domestic violence victims. Baytieh wrote in the memo that despite protests by himself and the lead prosecutor on the case that race of alleged victims was irrelevant, Spitzer persisted, saying that “he knows many Black people who get themselves out of their bad circumstances and bad situations by only dating `white women.”’
Spitzer on Wednesday said the memo misquoted him and took his comments out of context, saying he asked about race because many cases are overturned on claims of “cross-racial identification” issues. He also made that assertion in a Jan. 30 memo, writing, “My questions about Buggs and what the race of former girlfriends was simply to address the issue of cross-racial identification, the single biggest reason for murder convictions to be overturned. I simply was exploring Buggs’ ability to identify, properly or not, the race of the female victim in that moment before he executed two victims.”
During Buggs’ preliminary hearing, Newport Beach police testified that one of the defendant’s ex-girlfriends, who is white, told investigators that she met Partch at a gym and the two kept in touch. An apparently jealous Buggs at some point called Partch and frightened him enough that Partch called the woman and said he wanted to cut off any more contact with her.
According to police, Buggs also confronted a chiropractor who had dated the woman. The woman claimed Buggs was “stalking” her prior to the killing of Partch and Miller, who was also white.
Spitzer said that background was why he asked about the race of Buggs’ ex-girlfriend and Miller — in case the defendant may have shot Miller by mistake. The bodies of Miller and Partch were found nude and appeared to be shot execution style, according to police testimony at the preliminary hearing.
In Spitzer’s Jan. 30 memo, he wrote, “In my mind, if he killed the female (Miller) thinking she was the former girlfriend, there was an argument that it was heat of passion murder versus an execution of a witness.”
Prosecutors could not seek the death penalty in a “heat of passion,” or second-degree murder, case.
Spitzer said he ultimately decided against pursuing the death penalty for Buggs because he felt defense attorneys provided compelling evidence of Buggs’ possible brain damage over the years as a high school and college football athlete. Buggs’ attorney, Michael Hill, wrote in court papers that his client sustained a “traumatic brain injury” in a car crash in January 1995 and over the past few years “he had become increasingly delusional in his thinking.”
After Spitzer decided against seeking the death penalty for Buggs he reassigned the prosecution to Porter and Price, and “walled off” from the case all the prosecutors — including himself — who took part in the October meeting in which Spitzer brought up the race questions.
In his Feb. 3 letter to the judge in the case, Depweg — the Newport Beach police lieutenant — complained that he was unable to get answers from the District Attorney’s Office about why the case had been reassigned without any consultation with the victims or police, and why the office opted against seeking the death penalty in the case.
He said such actions by the office “would affect our working relationship moving forward,” while also suggesting there was an effort to “cover up” the alleged race-related comments made by Spitzer in the October meeting.
“Your honor, I have no firsthand knowledge that a comment derogatory in nature was made,” Depweg wrote. “However, I have a constitutional duty as a member of the prosecution team to turn over to the court and defense any and all exculpatory information that may be material to the case in chief. Mr. Buggs is Black. So if the elected District Attorney made a comment that is derogatory in nature towards Black men/person during the death penalty review, then I believe the court is the proper body to determine if discovery to the defense is appropriate.”
Depweg added that “no one is willing to have any dialogue with me, leaving no choice but to notify the presiding judge over Mr. Buggs’ criminal case of the potential misconduct by the elected district attorney.”
Asked about Depweg’s letter, Spitzer issued a statement saying his office “was very limited in what we could say because we had already gone to the judge and the issue was being litigated in court. It is completely understandable that there would be some confusion by other parties because the ongoing litigation prevented us from discussing details of the proceedings.
When my head of homicide expressed to me that Newport Beach police had questions about the status of the case and asked if I would take a phone call,
I said told him they could call me anytime. No one ever called me.”
Spitzer added, “On Nov. 10, 2021, criminal proceedings were suspended because of questions that the defendant was mentally incapable of assisting with his defense. On Jan. 31, 2022, the judge ruled that the defendant was mentally capable of assisting with his defense. Two days later, on Feb. 2, 2022, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office contacted the court regarding an issue that needed to be disclosed to the judge. The Orange County District Attorney’s Office could not have been more transparent regarding the disclosure, including providing notice to the defense attorneys. The decision to disclose that information to the court was made during the Special Circumstances meeting on Jan. 28.
“The defendant refused to waive time in the special circumstances murder case and trial was set for March 18. With that suddenly hasty timeframe in the middle of a pandemic that had forced Harbor Court to suspend trials, they inquired whether this was going to be a death penalty case and immediate notification was made.”
Spitzer on Wednesday suggested that Baytieh’s December memo detailing the race-related comments during the prosecutors’ meeting about Buggs was an effort to “extort” the district attorney after an internal probe was launched into Baytieh’s handling of an unrelated murder case. Baytieh was fired on Feb. 9, with Spitzer saying the move was the result of the investigation into that separate murder case.