As in the Molina case, Carona's department slyly hopes to sway Avila's future jury. Here, too, they have been busy leaking inflammatory, pro-prosecution information to an eager media. After his July 19 press conference, Carona earned kudos for his policing skills as well as for his fairness and professionalism. He said repeatedly that divulging key evidence against Avila would not be proper. "What is now most important is that we protect the integrity of this case for its eventual prosecution," he said. "As a result, many aspects of this investigation and evidence that we have confirmed cannot be discussed openly at this time."
But as Carona played good cop, his deputies did the dirty work behind-the-scenes. They leaked—no, poured out—information that allegedly supports Avila's guilt. On July 24, Times reporters Jack Leonard and Christine Hanley cited "a law-enforcement source" to publish a story suggesting that Avila's cell-phone use placed him near the crime scene. The reporters acknowledged that they were not allowed to review any supporting evidence but went ahead with the story anyway. The leaker, whose identity was protected by the paper, has also asserted that the government's case is bolstered by credit card transactions, fibers, DNA and physical evidence such as a scratch on Avila's body. Other Times reporters joined in the pretrial media demonization of Avila by announcing on July 20 that he had rented—gasp—"a pair of X-rated" videos last December. Is it any wonder that reactionary local talk show hosts have already called for Avila to "fry"?
There are those even within the Weekly newsroom who have argued that it's inappropriate to question law enforcement when a case involves the murder of a little girl. Said a colleague, "I have nothing but rage when I think about this crime." But the story did not end with the grotesque killing; nor was the case closed when Carona's detectives arrested Avila, a poor Riverside County factory worker. If the Molina trial reminded us of anything, it is that the government—whose awesome resources include the ability to use the increasingly subservient media for its own aims—must still prove its case in court.
Is a fair trial possible for Avila in Orange County—where the popular reigning sheriff has declared that he is "100 percent certain" of Avila's guilt; President George W. Bush has applauded Carona for catching "the killer"; deputies are running a pretrial public relations campaign for a conviction; and a local newspaper columnist is crusading for the death penalty?
USC law professor Susan Estrich is doubtful about Avila's chances in court, suggesting in a July 25 Fox News interview that his defenders would have to prove "beyond a reasonable doubt that he's innocent." Failing that, "you know, they . . . I don't want to say that they are going to string him up, but pretty close."
The brilliant Carona, who is now meeting with Republican campaign strategists in hopes of parlaying his newfound stature into higher political office, certainly understands Estrich's point.