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Close to Home: Andy Lopez case raises questions about D.A.


The Press Democrat editorial endorsing Jill Ravitch for district attorney ("Let Ravitch build on her first term," April 13) raises a fundamental question of critical concern for Sonoma County: What exactly do we want and expect from our district attorney? Of course we want unfettered honesty, diligence, unbiased thinking and dedication to serving the entire community regardless of social, economic and ethnic differences.

With those criteria in mind, let's review Ravitch's credentials and record with regard to the Oct. 22 shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by Deputy Erick Gelhaus.

Four years ago, one of Ravitch's central campaign planks called for more expeditious review of officer-involved fatal incidents. Her campaign pledge to speedily adjudicate filing criminal charges in officer-involved fatalities grew out of a painful 20-year background for victims and families of police-related deaths in Sonoma County.

In fact, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held hearings in Sonoma County in 1998 due to a spate of officer-related, civilian deaths in the mid-90s, and in a 2000 report it sided with community concerns. This report listed 26 recommendations ranging from improved training to a civilian complaint process to an overhaul of "the policies on use of force ... to incorporate mediation techniques and less violent methods of resolving a critical incident."

Had that particular policy recommendation been implemented, Andy Lopez might be alive for his 14th birthday on June 2.

To date, only a few of the 26 recommendations have been implemented. Since the report, there have been an additional 56 deaths resulting directly from police-related incidents. Andy Lopez is only one of the most recent of those victims.

While no district attorney is solely responsible for implementing those recommendations, Ravitch has shown no leadership as the county's top law enforcement official with regard to any substantive policy change recommended by the commission.

Further, Ravitch continues to walk a precarious legal and ethical path with regard to the Lopez case. While she recused her office from prosecuting Supervisor Efren Carrillo, she has refused to remove herself from adjudicating the criminal liability of Gelhaus, despite repeated attempts by many attorneys, individuals and organizations such as the NAACP to prevail upon her to remove herself.

Soon after the Andy Lopez killing, a group of us met with Ravitch to ask her to remove herself from the case on the grounds that her ties to Sheriff Steve Freitas rendered it impossible to fairly, and in an unbiased manner, judge whether a deputy had acted improperly. She declined.

Under the leadership of the Santa Rosa law firm of Adams Fietz, 18 Sonoma County attorneys signed a letter to Attorney General Kamala Harris asking her to disqualify Ravitch from the Lopez case, further requesting that a special prosecutor be appointed to handle the case. As legal authority for seeking Harris' intervention, the letter cited appropriate provisions from the California constitution, the state government code and national prosecution standards.

Six months have passed since the shooting death of Andy Lopez, and no decision has been forthcoming regarding the fate of Gelhaus. Ravitch has had this case since January with no indication that there will be a decision before the June election. In fact, as of Tuesday, 90 days have passed since she received the final report, but the community is still waiting.

Even more telling was Ravitch's quote in The Press Democrat from a recent candidates' debate in which she said that her office lacks the financial resources and expertise to adjudicate Gelhaus' criminal liability. This leaves little hope for a fair, transparent and equitable outcome, which is precisely why Ravitch needs to remove herself from any further adjudication and call for an outside special prosecutor.