By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Photo by James BunoanAfter a string of humiliating pre-trial losses in Orange County's most sensational teenage sex-crime case, it was bound to come to this: accused gang rapist Gregory Scott Haidl claiming he'd been framed by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.
On Feb. 26, just four days before the 18-year-old son of a wealthy assistant sheriff was scheduled for trial, Haidl defense lawyers filed a motion accusing Rackauckas of altering a DVD that the three teenagers made of themselves allegedly raping an unconscious girl on a pool table during a 2002 Newport Beach beer and pot party.
"This is cavalier misconduct," said lead Haidl lawyer Joseph G. Cavallo, who leaked the astounding claim first to the Orange County Register. Cavallo asked Superior Court Judge Francisco Briseno to rule the DVD inadmissible and then dismiss the case outright.
Cavallo told the Register that the DVD evidence should be considered "junk," an assertion that coincides with his effort to portray Rackauckas as a prosecutor hell bent on winning a conviction solely to improve his tarnished public image.
A quick-minded if cautious judge, Briseno will likely take his time to review this latest charge from the defense. But he delayed trial for 49 days to give prosecutors a chance to adequately prepare for Cavallo's last-minute move. Briseno ordered the parties back to court in mid-March to argue the DVD's authenticity.
Haidl's prosecutors, who have been repeatedly subjected to inflammatory if ultimately unfounded accusations from the defense, don't appear worried. "Why would we need to do something crazy?" said DA spokeswoman Susan Kang Schroeder. "It doesn't make any sense. We've always had a solid case. I can promise you that police or prosecutors never altered the tape. Basically, all we did to see these crimes was put their tape into a machine and hit the 'play' button."
But Haidl lawyers say they have at least two out-of-state video experts who will testify that 17 exonerating minutes are missing from the DVD. "The videotape proffered by the People omits events which were recorded and which provides a context that is essential to an accurate understanding of the defendant's and alleged victim's actions and shows that they were consensual," wrote Cavallo.
There's a sense in the local law enforcement community that the Haidl defense team carefully crafted an allegation that is deliberately vague. Made on Haidl's own Sony Hand Held camera, the controversial DVD is approximately 60 minutes in length. The first portion—about 39 minutes—contains images of Haidl skateboarding. It's likely that Haidl, an amateur film enthusiast, edited those images himself before the sexual encounter. The second half contains the alleged 21-minute rape and molestation footage.
"As far as we know, this part was not edited by anyone," said Schroeder.
It's no surprise that the defense is determined to undermine the power of the graphic DVD. In addition to showing the illegal sexual intercourse between minors, the tape shows the defendants penetrating the unconscious girl's anus and vagina with a Snapple bottle, lit cigarette, juice can and pool cue. One veteran detective vomited after watching it.
Ironically, the prosecution would have no case if the defendants hadn't taped the July 6, 2002, sexual encounter and then shared it with friends in Rancho Cucamonga. When the tape was left in an acquaintance's house, two civilians turned it over to authorities in San Bernardino County. It only ended up in the Orange County DA's office after it had been reviewed by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department and Newport Beach police detectives. The California Attorney General's office, no friend of Rackauckas' in the past, has reviewed the case and forcefully called it a legitimate prosecution.
This latest attempt to block admissibility of the DVD isn't the first. In January, Haidl defense lawyers asked Briseno to rule that the recording was improper evidence because it had been stolen from Haidl, who—they argued—had an expectation of privacy. Briseno refused. Haidl and co-defendants Kyle Joseph Nachreiner and Keith James Spann each face up to 55 years in prison if convicted.
"I fully understand that the defense is worried about that tape," said Schroeder. "They should be. But at the end of the day everyone knows that this case will be decided by the good folks of Orange County who will sit on the jury."