An attorney for the man accused of igniting the massive 2018 Holy fire is seeking to have the Orange County District Attorney’s Office removed from the case — arguing that Todd Spitzer’s comments while successfully running to head the agency prejudiced the defendant’s right to a fair trial.
The motion comes as the criminal case against Forrest Clark — accused of the 2018 blaze started in Holy Jim near Trabuco Canyon in the Cleveland National Forest that burned 23,000 acres in Orange and Riverside counties and destroyed a dozen cabins — was nearing a jury trial.
Alternate Defender Jason Phlaum, who is representing Clark, argued in a written motion that Spitzer “politically weaponized the case against Mr. Clark from its inception.”
At the time of the wildfire and Clark’s arrest, Spitzer was running for DA against incumbent Tony Rackauckas while serving as a county supervisor representing where the blaze broke out.
The defense attorney cited a press conference when Spitzer described Clark as a “monster,” asked rhetorically what kind of person would ignite a fire in such warm, dry and windy conditions, and mentioned the irony of Clark’s first name given the destruction caused by the flames.
The defense attorney also cited a Fox 11 Los Angeles segment when Spitzer apparently indicated that he believed Clark should be considered for the death penalty, as opposed to the maximum-life-without-the-possibility-of-parole sentence that Rackauckas’ representatives had indicated Clark was facing.
“Mr. Spitzer tried to portray himself as sounding tougher than tough, tougher than Mr. Rackauckas, and committing himself to positions in open cases,” Phlaum told Orange County Superior Court Judge Patrick Donahue during a hearing on Monday, March 20.
The defense attorney also alleged that Spitzer’s public comments may have dissuaded investigators from pursuing a different Canyon resident as a suspect.
The state Department of Justice has argued that there is no reason why the DA’s Office should not prosecute the case. If the DA’s Office was kicked off of the case, it would almost certainly go the California DOJ.
During Monday’s hearing, Deputy District Attorney Keith Burke argued that Spitzer was speaking to his constituents as a county supervisor when he referenced Clark in 2018. He added that DA candidates are allowed to talk about their thoughts on the law and on how they would handle particular cases.
“You are communicating to the electorate, ‘I think this is what should happen generally and this is what should happen specifically,’” Burke said.
The prosecutor also noted that the most significant move by prosecutors in the Clark case since Spitzer took office was to successfully seek the dismissal of some charges Clark was facing due to a lack of evidence. A different judge in 2018 found there was enough evidence for Clark, now 56, to face trial for the remaining arson and criminal-threats charges.
Judge Donahue told the attorneys that he will announce his decision regarding the motion to recuse the DA’s Office on Wednesday.
Prosecutors, during a 2018 preliminary hearing, relied heavily on threats Clark was accused of making against his fellow canyon residents as well as Clark responding to being asked if he started the fire by saying, “No, but maybe.”
Source: Orange County Register
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