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New judge in the OC murder retrial of Paul Gentile Smith has potential conflict

The complicated murder case against Paul Gentile Smith — accused in the fatal stabbing of a Sunset Beach pot dealer in 1988 — just got messier.

After Smith’s 2010 conviction was overturned this week, his retrial was assigned Friday to a judge who has politically endorsed the prosecutor blamed for misconduct in Smith’s first trial.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Cheri Pham assigned the case to Judge Gregg L. Prickett, who has endorsed prosecutor Ebrahim Baytieh’s candidacy for judge. Pham, herself, also has endorsed Baytieh as well as her husband, Andrew Do, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors.

Baytieh was the prosecutor in the original Smith trial a decade ago, but has been “walled off” from the Smith case now by his office. Authorities say the prosecutor failed for nine years to turn over evidence that a trio of jailhouse informants had been used against Smith in violation of his right to counsel. Baytieh wrote a letter to the defense in 2019 that he just learned of the evidence.

Smith’s defense lawyers — Assistant Public Defenders Scott Sanders and Sara Ross — reacted with alarm Friday after Pham assigned the case to Prickett. But Pham would not let them speak or put their protests on the record.

Sanders said he and Ross will ask Prickett to step down from the case when they return to court on Aug. 27. Smith pleaded not guilty Friday at the arraignment.

Lawrence Rosenthal, a professor at Fowler Law School at Chapman University in Orange, said judges have every right to endorse candidates for judicial office. However, it may not always be prudent.

“Why are judges endorsing Mr. Baytieh? Why are they so unconcerned with holding prosecutors accountable?” Rosenthal said. “Why should we even risk the appearance of impropriety?”

Baytieh has remained silent on the collapse of the Smith conviction, but his candidacy for a judgeship has attracted dozens of endorsements from within Orange County’s legal community. Baytieh is immensely popular despite accusations by Sanders that he kept Smith from receiving a fair trial.

Last week, first-term District Attorney Todd Spitzer requested Smith’s conviction be overturned because deputies indicated they would not testify at a hearing into alleged misconduct with Smith’s jailhouse informants.

The Smith retrial is an offshoot of the “snitch scandal,” the discovery in 2014 by Sanders that prosecutors and deputies had built a secret cadre of jailhouse informants to illegally coax confessions from inmates. It is illegal to use informants on defendants who have lawyers and have been formerly charged. The extent of the informant use was withheld from defense lawyers.

The snitch operation unfolded during hearings for mass murderer Scott Dekraai, who killed eight people in October 2011 at a Seal Beach hair salon. Dekraai escaped the death penalty and received life in prison because of the misconduct in his case.

Source: Orange County Register

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