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Saturday, August 09, 2008

Public Defender Melton is Off The Topete Case, Should He Be Out as Public Defender?

Public Defender Barry Melton officially removed himself yesterday from the case of accused Sheriff's Deputy killer, Marco Topete. Officially it appears we do not know the nature of the conflict of interest.

Barry Melton was immediately replaced by Hayes Gable III of Sacramento and Tom Purtell of Woodland. The defendant is in excellent hands with two lawyers experienced in capital murder cases.

However, Barry Melton's departure from this case leaves more questions than answers. Both of which are hinted at by an excellent article in the Woodland Daily Democrat on Friday morning.

In it, it chronicles the relationship between Barry Melton, Sheriff Ed Prieto and Judge Dave Rosenberg.

According to the article by Daily Democrat Staff Reporter Luke Gianni:
"Topete's wife, Angelique Topete, told the Democrat Thursday she witnessed an argument between [Deputy Public Defender Dean] Johansson and Melton last week at their office in Woodland days after Melton filed his motion.

She said Johansson was concerned over the political connections Melton shared between Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto and Rosenberg."
The article goes on to quote Mrs. Topete:
"In the process of Dean doing his investigation, he dug up a lot of stuff between Melton, Prieto and Rosenberg and that pissed Melton off."
The bottom line here is that the Daily Democrat dug up--what many of us have known for a long time--the fact that there is a strong relationship between Barry Melton, Ed Prieto, and Dave Rosenberg all of whom hang in the same Davis political circles and all of whom have contributed money to each other's campaign.

The Democrat continues:
"According to county election records obtained by the Democrat, all three men have contributed funds to each other over the last 10 years as their political careers have progressed.

Ed Prieto's political action committee "Citizens for Ed Prieto," received monetary contributions totaling around $600 from Rosenberg's political fund starting in 1998 when he ran for Sheriff up and until his last contribution in 2003.

Records also show Melton contributed a little more than $300 to Prieto's fund from 2000 to 2003.

As for Rosenberg, his "Friends of David Rosenberg" fund has received more than $150,000 in political contributions over the last decade before morphing into the "Judge David Rosenberg Committee," which was formed in 2003 during his run for a judicial seat.

From 1999 to 2003, Melton had contribute[d] more than $900 to this fund, records show.

The monetary ties between the judge, the attorney and the organization that employed the man her husband allegedly killed, has Angelique concerned over his chances at a fair trial."
The Democrat then brings in Judicial ethics expert Carol Langford, an adjunct professor at UC Hastings Law School. She told the Democrat that the political contributions did not mandate withdrawal from the case, but she also suggested a "voluntary step down to assure the public the case is being handled fairly."
"What I would say is you probably want to give that case to one of your panel people. You want to make sure that everyone is doing a good job and that there's the appearance that everything is fair and just. It's important that people think they're getting a fair shake especially in a small town."
So is this the reason that Barry Melton is recusing himself from the case? If so, there are more serious problems on the horizon. If he must remove himself from this case, does he then have to remove himself from every case involving Judge Dave Rosenberg? Does he have to then remove himself from every case involving the Sheriff's Department? Right there, that's a lot of cases? Did he also support Judge Tim Fall in his reelection bid this past June? Would he have to remove himself from any cases involving Judge Fall as well, if he did support his reelection?

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. The real kicker is that the Democrat did not complete the circle here. Back in 2006, there was a rather heated battle for District Attorney between fellow deputies Jeff Reisig and Pat Lenzi. Jeff Reisig eventually won that race by a rather narrow margin. Barry Melton did not formally endorse Jeff Reisig but behind the scenes he was a powerful advocate for Reisig and frequently attacked Pat Lenzi.

There's of course more to this than just that. Barry Melton did not himself donate to Jeff Reisig's campaign, but his wife, Barbara Langer did. The Democrat probably did not know to look for contributions to Jeff Reisig from Barry Melton's wife, but the support from Melton to Reisig is well known.

If indeed the reason that Barry Melton withdrew from this case had to do with the close political relationships here, then it calls into question Barry Melton's entire position as public defender. As such a political animal to begin with, perhaps Barry Melton is not the person best suited for this position.

This is all unfortunate for the family of the slain Sherrif's Deputy but also the Topete family that is entitled to a fair trial. Last week, members of Topete's family wanted Dean Johanson, whom Marco Topete trusts, to stay on the case. Now it appears that Barry Melton's entire office will drop out of the case.

The good news from Topete and for Yolo County is that he is in very capable hands. He was assigned first class defense.

But as this entire saga has shown, there are serious cracks in the Yolo County Justice System's foundation. The public defender as many have known for some time, seems to be right in the middle of the problem.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting