Judicial Whopper

You might have been outraged by this recent Los Angeles Times story: dismissing the objections of a prosecutor, an Orange County judge found a 36-year-old Guatemalan immigrant guilty of a misdemeanor for holding his son's fingers over an open stove flame as punishment for stealing gum.

The story, as told in a series of articles by reporter Stuart Pfeifer, sparked community-wide anger at Fullerton-based Superior Court Judge James O. Perez, the first Spanish-speaking judge in county history. An incensed Times reader in San Clemente complained that Perez “should be removed from the bench” for the April sentence he handed Wellington Eduardo Soto. A woman in Los Angeles said that “the lingering tragedy for the people of Orange County is that Judge Perez is being allowed to continue to carry out 'justice' on behalf of its citizens.”

Even usually composed Times columnist Dana Parsons pounced on the judge. Parsons claimed that county prosecutors had “wanted a state prison term” and “felony charges” against Soto, but that an out-of-touch judge had disregarded the district attorney's office to make “a horrendously bad call . . . one of the worst calls to come out of Orange County Superior Court in a long, long time.”

The Perez story was so sensational that it quickly found its way onto right-wing websites and conservative talk-radio shows as evidence that American judges—even in Republican-dominated OC—are too liberal. Acknowledging its reliance on Pfeifer's account, one New York-based website boldly declared Perez “had turned a blind eye toward child abuse” and is someone “who would happily bring down” Western civilization.

The Times-inspired media circus may have taken on a note of absurdity, but that didn't stop California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George from ordering a formal investigation into Perez's fitness for the bench. News of the investigation was—not surprisingly—broken by Pfeifer, who immodestly credited his own stories for prompting the probe.

But there is a major problem with Pfeiffer's account. It is wrong.

Perez did not ignore the prosecution's demand for a felony sentence as Pfeifer alleged. In fact, official court records demonstrate conclusively that Soto's punishment was formally proposed by Deputy District Attorney Karen Schatzle and Deputy Public Defender Jamalyn Ollinger, Soto's court-appointed representative. Schatzle and Ollinger negotiated the sentence and then together submitted it for the judge's approval; he gave it. An April 23 “General Misdemeanor Guilty Plea Form”—which formally recommended the misdemeanor sentence for Soto—bears Schatzle's signature (see document above).

Multiple sources say they notified Pfeifer of his error and were frustrated when he followed with a May 10 article that again omitted any direct reference to the key April 23 document. In that story, he continued to claim without attribution that the judge had handed down the misdemeanor sentence “over the objections of the prosecutor.”

A lawyer familiar with the Soto case is fuming. He said, “I can't think of a worst case of such obviously bad journalism. Stuart Pfeifer didn't attend the Soto hearings and apparently didn't read or understand the court file. He didn't really know what happened. He relied only on the word of a unethical deputy prosecutor to smear Judge Perez.”

But Pfeifer, who has received numerous journalism honors, defends his stories.

“I tried to be fair to all sides,” he told the Weekly.

When asked why he didn't mention the April 23 document, he said, “The deputy DA did not sign off on a misdemeanor conviction. She argued against the misdemeanor and lost. After the judge reduced the case to a misdemeanor, the DA and the defense lawyer proposed a sentence, which the judge imposed.”

But a transcript of the Soto hearing contradicts that version. Schatzle did argue at one point for the defendant—who had no prior criminal record and who had exhibited remorse—to receive a felony conviction. However, during the hearing, Perez asked, “This is a wobbler, isn't it?”—a case that could be either a felony or a misdemeanor. The deputy DA, who told Pfeifer she had always maintained the matter was a felony, responded succinctly, “Yes, it is, your honor.”

With that admission, Perez enumerated the defendant's prior clean record, his remorse as well as his cooperation with authorities. He then reduced the sentence to a misdemeanor. At that point, the deputy DA could have appealed but didn't—a point Pfeifer never highlighted. The transcript shows the judge was preparing to set a pretrial date when Schatzle turned to Soto's lawyer and said, “Well, will he plead now?”

“Yeah,” said Ollinger.

“I think we can resolve it today, your honor,” said Schatzle.

“Okay,” said the judge, who would later be presented with the soon-to-be controversial April 23 misdemeanor plea agreement.

Said a longtime friend of Perez, “I think the judge is hurt that the Times has portrayed him as a fool who callously dismissed the DA's position. He didn't. As the transcripts show, it was [Schatzle] who actually proposed the plea. Why she would do that and then attack the judge for signing something she had already approved is just nuts.”

While frustrated with what they see as Schatzle's “inexplicable” public-relations war against the judge, numerous members of the public defender's office blame Pfeifer. Said one, “An honest judge's reputation has been shattered unfairly by shoddy journalism.”

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