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Saturday, July 13, 2024 | Back issues
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California judge digs into defense attorney in wrongful conviction case

The federal magistrate questioned why the attorney representing three Sacramento agencies would need specific language in an order directing him to file a declaration about discovery.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — A federal judge on Friday lambasted the defense attorney in the civil case of a man wrongfully convicted of murder, doubting his clients’ sincerity about revealing records as she contemplates a potential contempt finding.

The case, filed in 2022 in the Eastern District of California, centers around the wrongful conviction of Jeremy Phillip Puckett in 2001. Jailed on murder and robbery charges, Puckett spent almost 20 years in prison and has now been exonerated and found innocent.

Puckett in his suit writes that his conviction was no accident, but instead the result of “reckless and intentional misconduct” involving three Sacramento agencies — the sheriff’s office, district attorney’s office and Sacramento County government.  

Puckett is seeking various documents from the agencies, like personnel and disciplinary records, and has appeared in court several times over the past few months in his attempts. Friday’s hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Barnes focused on two of Puckett’s motions: to compel the agencies to perform adequate searches for the requested records and provide them if found, and to find the agencies in contempt for failing to obey a previous order to compel.

Barnes first heard arguments on the motion for contempt.

“I’m not sure there’s a controversy anymore,” said attorney John Whitefleet, who represents the agencies, suggesting Friday’s hearing be postponed.

Attorney Rachel June-Graber, representing Puckett, disagreed. June-Graber said she wants a declaration from the agencies stating that they’ve performed the necessary searches for physical and electronic records and turned them over, or alternatively determined no records exist. She said it’s difficult to accept when the agencies say they’ve provided the requested documents, as they’ve previously said certain records didn’t exist only to find them afterward.

A declaration from the agencies became a sticking point during the hearing. June-Graber said her client doesn’t want assurances. He wants the record searches to occur, and documents provided.

“That’s what we’re willing to do,” Whitefleet said.

Barnes questioned why those searches and declarations haven’t happened yet, noting Friday wasn’t the first time the issue’s been raised.

Whitefleet said the searches had occurred and documents handed over, which led the judge to push on the declaration issue. How, she questioned, can he prove the searches happened if no declaration exists?

Pressed on the issue, Whitefleet said Puckett is speculating that the agencies hadn’t provided all the documentation and there was no basis for a declaration.

“Yes, there is,” Barnes replied, saying she’s never seen a case where a public entity was this reluctant on discovery issues.

“There’s a background here, counsel.”

Pivoting to the motion to compel, June-Graber said Puckett has received 4,000 pages of personnel files. However, no disciplinary files were produced and he has no declaration about the personnel records.

Whitefleet said the agencies handed over all the documents requested, despite considering some of them irrelevant. He told the judge that his clients have complied with a February order about the documents and that the order didn’t require a declaration.

Barnes quickly homed in again on that aspect, saying she didn’t understand why Whitefleet would need written direction to provide a declaration. Otherwise, she suggested, he’d have to put someone on the witness stand to testify about the records.

“I don’t understand how that is a confusing concept,” the judge said.

Barnes took both motions under consideration.

Now free, Puckett has argued that sheriff’s officials used a jailhouse informant, himself worried about being a target of investigators, to link Puckett to the robbery and murder of Anthony Galati. Also, detectives withheld evidence from Puckett and prosecutors. Additionally, a deputy district attorney withheld information that the informant only pointed to Puckett after his own DNA was collected.

A pathologist with the county wrongly estimated the time of Galati’s death. That faulty information was used by prosecutors when they charged Puckett despite his alibi, according to Puckett.

Categories / Civil Rights, Law, Regional

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