How Prosecutors Botched A Facebook Threatening Messages Case
Lawson's mug shot
You may have read a late November news story about a married Las Vegas woman creating a fake Facebook account for an Orange County boyfriend, sending herself messages threatening rape and murder, posing as the victim of a kidnapping and violence, contacting police and repeatedly getting her lover arrested.
Stephani Renae Lawson, a 25-year-old cashier, can now be considered the modern version of 1987's Fatal Attraction character played by Glenn Close.
But while the Nov. 30 wire service story got many of the facts right, it also gave the false impression that the Orange County district attorney's office (OCDA) performed heroically by timely figuring out Lawson's scam and preventing what would have been a terrible injustice to Tyler Parkervest.
According to prosecutor Mark Geller's account for City News Service, OCDA investigator Loren Dawson suddenly got a hunch during a May preliminary hearing that something was wrong with the government's case.
"One of my DA colleagues looked at [screen grabs of the Facebook messages during the hearing] and said it doesn't look right and that triggered in our minds maybe we need to look into this further," explained Geller.
The line sounds inspiring with cursory consideration, but the alleged heroics aren't so heroic when you consider what an innocent Parkervest endured because of callous, lazy sheriff's deputies and OCDA personnel, who didn't undertake the simplest of Crime Fighting 101 investigations before robbing him of his freedom and trying to send him to state prison for what could have been more than a decade.
In a seven month period, deputies arrested Parkervest a whopping four times, a feat performed by ignoring his adamant denials and cooperation, logical contradictions in Lawson's stories, hints of her shoddy character, and what should have been obvious law enforcement suspicions based on the fact the fake Facebook account didn't even use the man's correct last name.
Yet, the bad case was good enough for Geller to take to a preliminary hearing seeking judicial approval of the DA's wishes for a conviction.
This prosecutor has a record of indifference to facts. In 2010, for example, he learned about credible evidence that his office was charging an innocent 14-year-old boy with murder. His response? He did nothing and as a consequence the kid remained wrongly locked up for two years before the case was finally dismissed without apologies.
We also learned during 2014 special evidentiary hearings in People v. Scott Dekraai that even though a defendant's reputation and freedom are at stake during preliminary hearings, Geller doesn't bother to study his cases in-depth before asking for judicial approval to proceed to trials.
Under questioning by Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders about his sloppy job performance in an unrelated homicide investigation, he defended his practice of ignoring key case details until the verge of jury selection.
"It's a prelim," he barked at Sanders, downplaying this important criminal justice safeguard against prosecutors pushing lousy charges. "Certainly before trial all the I's are dotted and T's are crossed. It's a prelim!"
He went on to testify that all he needs as a prosecutor to keep pre-trial defendants charged and potentially locked up is "some basic understanding of the evidence (my emphasis)."
In Parkervest, Geller obviously didn't abandoned that mentality—charge someone with felonies without serious investigation, seek a judge's permission to go to trial and then figure out the evidence.
In late November, after charges were finally dropped against the suspect, Lawson pleaded guilty to two felony counts, perjury and false imprisonment, and is currently serving a one-year punishment inside the Orange County Jail.
Inadvertently underscoring the unnecessarily fragile nature of our criminal justice system, Geller patted himself on the back because tragedy was averted in this case.
"I'm glad it worked out the way it did because I didn't have any doubt I would have been able to convict this kid," he boasted to a reporter. "Fortunately, we were able to figure out the truth and hold her accountable."
Geller misses the point. For more than 200 days while wrecking Parkervest's life and costing his family several hundred thousand dollars in bail, nobody in law enforcement thought to do what a third grader would propose in similar circumstances: simply check the IP address of the threatening messages. If they'd done so, they would have discovered last year that Lawson had been sending all of the threats to herself.
Incompetent work seems the norm. The California Court of Appeal weren't impressed with Geller's eyebrow-raising conviction win in People v. Darrell Booth and in October overturned the case. The justices determined the prosecutor had trampled Booth's due process rights.
(Go here to see our September 2016 coverage of the Booth trial, "Did Orange County's Justice System Imprison An Innocent Man For Murder?)
On Dec. 23, Glen Sandler, Parkervest's Santa Ana-based lawyer who has noted that Facebook attorneys also prolonged the case by fighting subpoenas, is scheduled to ask a judge to declare his client factually innocent and to seal the government's discredited case from public view.
"Clearly, [Parkervest] did not commit the alleged offenses," Sandler wrote in a brief for the hearing. "It's in the interest of justice that [his] record remain unscathed."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.