Orange County has employed notorious judges but none have been more arrogant than Robert Fitzgerald. Over past decades Fitzgerald has used his courtroom for an one-man show where he simultaneously plays defense lawyer, prosecutor, jury and judge. We recently learned that he's not ready to retire his dismal act.
Fitzgerald convinced Ronald William Foster
, a 51-year-old armed robbery defendant, to plead guilty and bypass a jury trial by promising to erase firearm enhancements that carried a mandatory minimum 10-year prison sentence.
The Orange County District Attorney's office objected, but Fitzgerald–apparently empathetic to Foster's intoxication defense–declared he had the discretion to make the move and did so. Foster's punishment? Credit for time served in the local jail (561 days) plus an additional 486 days of incarceration.
A displeased DA Tony Rackauckas, once a superior court judge himself, thought Fitzgerald's rulings were wrong and the punishment weak for a bandit who'd allegedly entered a store, flashed a load gun, terrified a female clerk and escaped with about $200 in cash from the register. His office appealed.
On June 18, a three-justice panel at the California Court of Appeal based in Santa Ana blasted the judge for repeatedly ignoring state law. They called his actions “unauthorized.” To get the case back on the proper track, the justices ordered that Foster be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea to face the original DA case in preparation for what Fitzgerald seems to abhor: allowing juries to decide who is guilty.
You may recall that it was Fitzgerald who wanted to clear his docket in 2005 so he gave an underhanded ultimatum to James Ochoa at the outset of his jury trial: confess to a carjacking/robbery and get two years in state prison or proceed and risk a life sentence if found guilty.
Never mind that I wrote an exhaustive pre-trial report proving the facts overwhelmingly cleared the 20-year-old Buena Park man. Ochoa, who'd already been railroaded by rush-to-judgment street cops, detectives and prosecutors, ignored his own lawyer's advice and caved into the judge's pressure. Fitzgerald had promised him, “Innocent get convicted too.” Jurors, who were oblivious to the judge's moves, were sent home. Ochoa was bused to a California hellhole desert prison.
Sixteen months later, DNA analysis by the California Department of Justice confirmed that Fitzgerald had stolen an innocent man's liberty.
Botching cases is standard practice for this judge. In 2004, he significantly reduced the bail for a violent bank robber who then shot a Santa Ana cop upon release. In 2003, he refused to obey a voter-approved state proposition regarding the punishment of non-violent drug offenders. In 2002, the California Supreme Court determined he wrongly sent a man to prison for life without the possibility of parole. In 2001, appellate justices overturned a murder conviction because he repeatedly made sarcastic and rude remarks to the defense lawyer in front of the jury. He grabbed national headlines in 1991 by writing a poem for a man he was sending to prison.
–R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.