During closing arguments in the trial of a deputy accused of turning the Orange County Jail into a two-year pleasure palace for a bribe-tossing killer inmate, innocence or guilt comes down to common sense, according to both the prosecutor and the defense attorney.
Deputy District Attorney Aleta Bryant confidently told a jury on July 2 that David Lloyd Cass betrayed his duties by allowing Stephenson Choi Kim to enjoy regular sex dates in the jail's visitor area and permitting the gangster to smuggle in contraband–marijuana, razor blades, candy, food, tools, porn and a cell phone–in exchange for bribes totaling at least $850, mostly in gift certificates, and the promise of a high-end Asian prostitute.
"How did he get in that seat?" Bryant asked, pointing at Cass at the defense table. "His conduct put him there. . . . They [Kim and Ha Duc Nguyen] had a special friend in Mr. Cass because Mr. Cass was turning off the lights [in an Attorney-Bonds booth] and letting them have sex."
Nguyen, the trial's key witness, testified for nearly six days and claimed Cass permitted as many as 30 sex dates with Kim from 2009 to 2011 in the visitor's area and allowed her to smuggle in contraband. She testified jail security was so lax that she was able to bring the sociopath steak dinners and dishes from Olive Garden, run a highly profitable drug-dealing business for the inmate population, and shoot three porn videos in the visitor's area–where Nguyen says she lost her virginity–using her iPhone. One clip shows a smiling Kim masturbating while fondling Nguyen's breast. To continue to win special privileges from the deputy, the couple gave him gifts that he accepted, according to Bryant.
"[Cass] got justification in his own mind for doing what he was doing," the prosecutor stated. "He was letting the gifts influence him."
Such comments visibly annoyed defense attorney Lewis Rosenblum, who launched a multifront attack on the government's case; he described himself as "angry" about the state's claims and his court moves as "dismantling" the prosecution's case. Easily one of the region's most impressive trial lawyers, Rosenblum targeted the credibility of three people: Nguyen, Bryant and Orange County Sheriff's Department investigator James Karr.
Rosenblum on Nguyen: "You probably have not met a more dishonest person in your life. . . . She is not believable. . . . She's going to lie to everyone to get her precious [plea bargain] deal."
On Bryant: "The prosecutor is making up evidence that was not in this courtroom. . . . If you get anywhere in her crosshairs, you are guilty!"
On Karr: "Investigator Karr wants to be the hero. . . . You have [him] giving you misinformation under oath."
According to Rosenblum, Cass was "an idiot" for taking expensive hockey tickets from Nguyen, but the deputy didn't know about the sex, porn or smuggling or that she was the killer's wife because the woman, a "master manipulator," entered the jail as a "legal runner."
As representative of the weakness of Karr's investigation and Bryant's prosecution, the Santa Ana defense attorney who once worked as a high-ranking prosecutor reminded the jury of a glaring embarrassment for the government.
For days during the trial inside Judge Patrick H. Donahue's court, Bryant displayed a blown-up photograph that showed the top of a black, $25 In-N-Out Burger gift certificate recovered from the deputy's property. The prosecution argued the image was solid evidence supporting Nguyen's claim she gave the item to Cass as part of the bribery scheme.
But in a Perry Mason moment, Rosenblum asked Nguyen where she'd purchased the fast-food gift certificate; she named a store on a particular street in central Orange County. He told the witness to read the certificate's serial number, and then he advised the jury he'd done what Karr never bothered to do: He asked In-N-Out officials where and when the certificated had been purchased. Waving a letter from the company, Rosenblum announced the findings: The gift certificate had been purchased 30 miles away from Nguyen's claimed location and in the Los Angeles County city of La Verne.
He asked, Who lives in La Verne?
He answered his own question: the defendant's mother.
"They want to convict my client based on a gift card his mother gave him," thundered Rosenblum, who pointed to Karr sitting in the audience. "There's the hero who did this great investigation. All he had to do was call. But he's too busy. He's willing to convict my client of felonies, and he's too busy to find out the truth."
When the attorney returned his attention to the jury, a crimson-faced Karr and a colleague yapped loudly–conduct usually displayed during a trial by uncouth hoodlums.
A stern Rosenblum turned and walked toward noise.
"Is there something you need to say?" he asked the deputies.
They quickly shook their heads no and remained silent.
Rosenblum wasn't done, pointing and saying, "That's the investigator they want you to believe."
"Why didn't they tell you about the problems in their investigation?" he asked. "There are only two possibilities: They didn't know, or they didn't want you to know. That's why I am so angry. If I heard half the story, I'd convict [Cass], too. They didn't tell you everything."
Bryant, a veteran prosecutor, assured the jury that Nguyen is credible, that phone and jail records support her version, and that Karr didn't rush to arrest Cass, but rather methodically pursued all relevant leads in a 40-plus-stage investigation, a point she illustrated on a poster.
"What on Earth" would cause the deputy to befriend a scumbag such as Kim other than bribes? she asked. "Does he ever try to give the gifts back? No."
Rosenblum will conclude his closing argument when court resumes on Monday, followed by Bryant's final address to the jury.