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Seven Justices for Five Innocents

Five innocent people, wrongly accused, politically vilified, and whose lives were destroyed by the mere act of prosecution, were partially redeemed Jan. 25 by the unanimous opinion of California’s seven-member Supreme Court in Lexin v Superior Court.

Remember the names of the innocent, good and decent people whose lives were utterly destroyed for no proper reason: Cathy Lexin, Mary Elizabeth Vattimo, Teresa Aja Webster, Sharon Kay Wilkinson and John Anthony Torres. Be reminded that, but for the political fates and the grace of God, go any one of you reading this column, or, for that matter, anyone about whom you care.

The “crime” of those five: They were in the wrong place at the wrong time doing public service as required of them by the law and City Charter; but, public money was running short.

“Effie, bring me my tar ‘n pitchfork, thar’s public employees ta be distroyn’,” was apparently the guiding sentiment in San Diego’s panic of 2004.

The panic of prosecutorial officials had all the earmarks of a desperate, rioting street mob looting stores, but executed with panache and legal formalities, misusing institutions intended to protect justice, not exact a heavy five-finger price discount via a grandiose smash-and-grab scheme. Have we been experimenting to discover how far justice can fall from its original charter?

Let me repeat: Five innocent lives were destroyed; five careers were ended; each gave up five years of the “threescore and 10” allotted to each human in the King James Bible.

It didn’t end there: Their parents, children, friends, loved ones and spouses also lived a horror as news people and prancing political hordes trampled five reputations, besmirched their honor, and repeated ad nauseam the nonsense belching from the Aguirre-run City Attorney’s office, a source of legal effluvium in endless supply. The words “illegal benefits” were on lips hither and yon.

To be abundantly clear: Elected District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis was wrong to charge these people based on incomprehensible, experimental “crimes.” They committed no crime, but they were wrongly, mercilessly and publicly punished. Mincing words at this stage to save the political feelings of those in power would undercut the severity of the injustice done to these five innocent people; political niceties will play no part in my summary here, come what may.

Mike Aguirre: You remember him — the elected, “independent,” city attorney responsible for overspending public funds, losing cases, excessive outside counsel costs, hiding employees on the city books, bad legal analyses, constant press conferences, serious ethical gaffs, and an astonishing range of violated rules. He brought you imagined angst sufficient to justify a sliding scale of justice.

These innocent people were pursued, in large part, because he and his advisers had found a political horse to ride to victory — to save the public from paying their bills. Who doesn’t like that?

In response, many in the media, and therefore the public, were swept up in a self-serving passion to find someone to blame for purportedly imprudent public decisions which cost money; convenience overwhelmed the legal community. Together, these are a formula which underpins anarchy and against which our legal system must stand stalwart.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, the official but “enigmatic Latin motto appearing on the seal of the Department of Justice (is) ‘Qui Pro Domina Justitia Sequitur.'” They explain this as: The attorney “who prosecutes on behalf of the Lady Justice.” Sadly, the unofficial federal motto appears closer to: “Rah, rah, me too, me too.” Now we are offered justice rivaling an ego-driven, intellectualized sporting event.

Former United States Attorney Carol Lam likewise indicted a group of defendants in connection with pension decisions, including some of the five named above. Inexplicably, she included the General Counsel for San Diego’s City Employee Retirement System. One key witness: Diann Shipione, apparently a personal financial adviser of Lam’s. From its inception, the federal case appeared exceptionally vague, flimsy and, frankly, politically suspect. Each court hearing has intensified that appearance.

Federal District Court Judge Benitez has publicly observed on several occasions that he would dismiss the case against the federal defendants, but lacks a procedural device. Apparently having demoted the objective of “doing justice,” Team U.S.-Attorney repeatedly and fervently riles against dismissal; no doubt, a dismissal would be publicly embarrassing for them.

What will happen in federal court now the California Supreme Court has spoken? Nothing?! We’re here to win!?

The U.S. Supreme Court recently asked lawyers in the Skilling case to brief whether the federal “honest services” statute, which also underpins the majority of charges in San Diego’s federal case, is or is not unconstitutionally vague. If unconstitutional, what will Team U.S.-Attorney do to serve justice?

One modest reminder: Lady Justice is not sport.

Dan Coffee’s opinion column on San Diego can be read every Friday in the San Diego Daily Transcript.