SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — An award-winning California prosecutor fired last week raised questions about racially tinged remarks made by his boss, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer, when discussing a double-murder case in which a Black man was charged, according to documents released Wednesday.
Spitzer on Wednesday denied making any improper comments and said the now-fired prosecutor, Ebrahim Baytieh, was under investigation for withholding evidence in an old murder case and made the allegations in an attempt to threaten him and try to hang onto his job.
Baytieh, who is running for election to be a judge, wrote an internal memo in December saying comments made by Spitzer during a discussion over whether to seek the death penalty for defendant Jamon Buggs should be reported to the man’s lawyer or a judge under a recent California racial justice law.
He wrote that the county’s top prosecutor asked about the race of Buggs’ previous girlfriends — an issue Baytieh and another prosecutor argued was irrelevant.
However, according to the memo, Spitzer disagreed, saying, “he knows many Black people who get themselves out of their bad circumstances and bad situations by only dating ‘white women.’”
Buggs has pleaded not guilty to shooting a man and woman, both white, at a Newport Beach condominium in 2019. His next court hearing is in March.
On Wednesday, Spitzer said race was an issue in the case because authorities suspect Buggs targeted the man because he mistakenly believed he was dating Buggs’ white ex-girlfriend.
Buggs may have mistaken the woman he killed for his ex, Spitzer said, adding that he needed o address such questions when weighing something as serious as the death penalty.
“These are open, candid conversations. Every word isn’t measured. We’re talking about life and death,” Spitzer said by telephone. Baytieh “tried to paint it as something inappropriately motivated and racist. It wasn’t anything like that.”
Spitzer said he reconvened a meeting of prosecutors in January and turned over information about the conversation to the judge as a precaution, though he didn’t feel California’s new law required it.
Baytieh wasn’t fired because of the memo, Spitzer said, but because an independent investigation determined that Baytieh withheld evidence in the 2010 conviction of a man in the killing of his marijuana dealer.
Baytieh prosecuted that case, and the man will now get a new trial.
Baytieh is a former Prosecutor of the Year in California who is campaigning to become a judge. He was fired from his job as a senior assistant district attorney overseeing homicide, sexual assault and other cases.
A message left for Baytieh was not immediately returned. His election campaign is supported by Republicans and Democrats and a range of law enforcement officials.
The disclosure of the memo comes in a county of more than 3 million people that has been riled by recent hate incidents ranging from racist slurs at a school basketball game to antisemitic fliers left outside homes.
Spitzer, who has denounced hate incidents in the county, said he decided not to seek death for Buggs because making such a case would be difficult due to evidence that Buggs suffered head trauma as a young football player.
A message was left for Buggs’ attorney, Michael Hill.