Prosecuting a Prosecutor
After an arrest, law-enforcement officials throughout the criminal-justice system nearly always fall into lockstep to win a conviction. But the case of People v. Mani Dabiri might just be unique. Prosecutors at every level—federal, state and local—have angrily disagreed with one another over the matter, with each side accusing the other of unethical behavior.
At the center of the case is Dabiri, who was a well-regarded, 30-year-old, up-and-coming assistant United States Attorney based in Santa Ana—until March 2009, when sheriff’s deputies arrested the Ladera Ranch resident on domestic-violence charges. His friends—and there are many—insist Dabiri wasn’t the perpetrator.
“I can tell you 100 percent that Mani was the victim here,” said one attorney familiar with the case, echoing the opinion of several sources. “He’s a great guy who unfortunately was involved with someone who is a mess. He should have never been prosecuted. It’s outrageous.”
Despite that sentiment, Department of Justice honchos in Washington, D.C., didn’t wait for the criminal case to play out: After his arrest, Dabiri lost his dream job. His allies are furious because they say his life has been turned upside-down, even though he was legally vindicated. This month, a jury of nine men and three women at the Fullerton courthouse found him not guilty on three counts and hung, 6-6, on a misdemeanor battery charge.
But the matter is more complicated because there’s a belief inside the state Attorney General’s office that a prosecutor with the Orange County district attorney’s office tried to sabotage the case.
Deputy District Attorney Shaddi Kamiabipour has a personal connection with Dabiri. Kamiabipour’s younger brother is a close friend of Dabiri’s, and their mothers are also close.
One day after Dabiri’s arrest, Kamiabipour—who works major fraud cases—sent an e-mail to her colleagues in the DA’s Family Protection bureau. This unit has the responsibility to decide if criminal charges are warranted in domestic-violence cases and, if so, whether they should be felonies or misdemeanors. Usually, a deputy DA relies almost exclusively on a police report to make such decisions.
In her e-mail to Deputy DA Heidi Garrel, which I obtained, Kamiabipour offered her own views about the case and Dabiri. She defended Dabiri’s character at length—especially noting his calm demeanor and outstanding scholarship at USC and UCLA. She also blamed Dabiri’s fiancee for the fight, claimed the woman had attacked her friend and that—other than “putting her in a headlock to calm her down”—he did not touch her as she “trashed” his condo and attempted to commit suicide by swallowing a handful of over-the-counter sleeping pills. The fiancee’s injuries—which included a scratch and redness on her neck and a bruise on her knee—had been self-inflicted, Kamiabipour said, giving this explanation: “During a 1.5-hour fight, she was destructive, and she tried to hurt herself by hitting herself in the head and chest areas.
“I really appreciate your assistance in looking out for this filing,” Kamiabipour wrote to Garrel. “Please let me know what you decide to do.”
According to multiple sources inside the DA’s office, the e-mail contact violated prosecutorial ethics. I have been told it compounded concerns that Kamiabipour also communicated with the alleged victim, telling her not to contact prosecutors with her version of events. “I didn’t talk to [Jane Doe] personally,” Kamiabipour wrote in her e-mail to Garrel, “but I passed on a message to her that she should stay put and not to try to contact you or the DA’s office.”
These acts “left our office no choice but to kick the case” to the AG’s office “to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest,” said Susan Kang Schroeder, media-affairs counsel to DA Tony Rackauckas.
The case landed on the desk of Deputy AG Natasha Cortina, who eventually wrote the following summary based largely on a sheriff’s department incident report: Jane Doe, the fiancee, pushed over a vase containing daffodils during the March 29, 2009, argument with Dabiri about their relationship. In response, the federal prosecutor “completely snapped,” according to Cortina.
“[Dabiri] ran over to Jane Doe, grabbed her by the throat, pushed her against a wall and started to strangle her pretty hard,” Cortina wrote in court documents. “The defendant squeezed Jane Doe’s neck to the point where her breathing was compromised. She couldn’t talk, and she was scared. His face was inches from hers. All the while, the defendant yelled at Jane Doe.”
After about 15 seconds of squeezing Doe’s throat, Dabiri “let go” and began calling his fiancee “a piece of shit,” according to Cortina. “For the next 20 minutes, while Doe sat on the floor crying, the defendant spat on her twice.”
Later, when Doe refused Dabiri’s command to leave the condo, he “pushed Doe from behind so hard that she flew and landed on her knees . . . then he put her in a headlock with all his might,” Cortina recounted in her brief.
Obviously, the jury rejected that version of events, but the deputy AG believed the case was tainted from the outset because Kamiabipour had supplied her colleagues a back-channel “exculpatory” story that blamed Jane Doe, who is 5 inches shorter and 62 pounds lighter than Dabiri. Cortina charged the federal prosecutor with two felonies: for attempting to strangle the woman and for forcefully shoving her to the ground and placing her in a headlock. (Jurors were also given the option of misdemeanor battery charges on each of the two counts.)
During the trial in Superior Court Judge James Rogan’s courtroom, Kamiabipour testified, in part, that she’d done nothing wrong. Before she left the stand, Rogan reminded the deputy DA of her ethical duties and constitutional right against self-incrimination. But Kamiabipour’s assertion of innocence caused another rift inside the DA’s office.
Cortina—who has won the wrath of several federal prosecutors who believe she has been overzealous—called Assistant DA Dan Wagner to the witness stand. The acting head of the DA’s Fullerton courthouse operations testified that a prosecutor is ethically banned from trying to use insider status to influence whether charges will be filed against a friend or a relative. Another senior prosecutor who agreed with Wagner called the issue a “no-brainer.”
I did not attend the trial, so I wasn’t able to interview jurors about their views on the ethical spat. Dabiri himself declined to comment for this story. Kamiabipour refused to comment on Wagner’s testimony. She did, however, defend herself.
“I was obligated to disclose my relationship to the defendant and anything I knew so that the office could decide what to do with the case,” she said. “I knew that the office may be forced to recuse itself in this case when I communicated with [them]. All of the deputy prosecutors involved were neither my personal friends nor were they people who worked for me. How could I possibly influence them? That’s ridiculous.”
Defense attorney Kate Corrigan (along with John Barnett) represented Dabiri and agreed with Kamiabipour. She called questions about possible misconduct “pure, unadulterated bull.”
“Shaddi did absolutely nothing wrong,” said Corrigan. “This whole issue sounds like sour grapes in the AG’s office because they lost the case. Whoever is feeding you this line should be very careful because Shaddi has a well-deserved, excellent reputation.”
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