Every day it becomes more clear that George Gascon will do whatever it takes to force his insane directives and policies on unwilling Deputy DA’s, judges, and victims’ families. Now, apparently, he’s enlisted his Special Advisor, Deputy DA Mario Trujillo (whom he’s used in the past to bully wayward DDA’s) to go around the prosecuting DDA and offer a “sweetheart” plea deal to the public defenders in a gang murder case.
Rudy Dominguez, now 24, is accused of murdering Fernando Rojo Jr., 26, on March 19, 2016. Rojo and another man were shot as they stood in front of Rojo’s home in South Los Angeles, victims of an apparent drive-by, gang-related shooting. Rojo, who was not a gang member, died, while his friend was wounded but recovered. Prosecutors originally (under former District Attorney Jackie Lacey) had filed a number of special circumstances allegations and potential sentence enhancements in the case, such as a gang enhancement, gun enhancement, and more. These special circumstances and enhancements dramatically increased Dominguez’s prison time exposure such that he faced life in prison without the possibility of parole.
On December 15, DDA Jeffrey Herring appeared before Superior Court Judge Mark Arnold to do his duty and bring forward a motion to dismiss those special circumstances and enhancements. After a brief and wild hearing that we’ll get to in a minute, it was revealed that Trujillo, who wasn’t the prosecuting attorney, had offered Dominguez a secret plea deal under which Dominguez would serve seven years. Total.
Yep. Seven years for being part of a gang shooting up random people who are minding their own business at their own home, killing one of them and seriously injuring another. Since Dominguez has been behind bars for about three years already, he would be out around the time he was 28 — free to murder again.
Fortunately, that potential plea deal is dead, but how in the world could this happen?
As you know if you’ve been following Gascon’s brief but explosive tenure, on his first day in office Gascon issued a Special Directive requiring his Deputy District Attorneys to make motions to dismiss sentence enhancements and special circumstances in all pending cases, even murder cases. Some DDA’s weren’t too keen about that idea, but Trujillo and another Gascon adviser, Tiffany Blacknell (a Deputy Public Defender) devised ways to bully and intimidate DDA’s who weren’t following the new rules.
Many judges quickly got wise to Gascon’s tactics, and they, too, were subjected to targeted harassment and intimidation by Trujillo, Blacknell, and more.
Interestingly, until that December 15 court date, Tiffany Blacknell was Rudy Dominguez’s public defender. At some time between the date of Gascon’s swearing-in and then, Mario Trujillo went around DDA Herring’s back and offered Blacknell the 7-year plea deal. Blacknell was no longer to be assigned to Dominguez’s case (it’s unclear why), but she passed along that offer to her colleague Traci Blackburn, who presented it to Dominguez. Obviously, Dominguez jumped at the offer, and Blacknell believed they were there in court to enter that plea arrangement on December 15.
Then DDA Herring arrived at court and, apparently, heard about the offer and did not present it to the judge. We don’t know for certain what happened before the case went on the record because there’s no transcript of that portion and no one from the DA’s office is commenting on the record. Herring brought forth his motion to dismiss special circumstances and sentencing allegations, and Blackburn had the audacity to weigh in and essentially tell the judge that if the DA’s office wants to drop them the Court had no say in the matter.
According to the transcript posted by investigative reporter Katy Grimes at California Globe, Judge Arnold asked if anyone from the victim’s family was present because he wanted to hear from them. The victim’s family members were clearly not okay with this action after Arnold confirmed for them that if he granted the motion the defendant wouldn’t receive as much jail time as before. Rojo’s sister told the judge that no, the family did not agree to the DA’s motion because it wasn’t fair, and that they wanted the judge to deny it.
Upon questioning from Judge Arnold as to whether there was any other basis for the motion than it being “in the interest of justice,” such as proof problems or evidence issues, DDA Herring replied:
There are no problems with proof with this case, Your Honor. There are legally cognizable mitigating factors that include lack of a criminal record and young age for the defendant. Aside from that, I believe that it is my duty to put forth the policies that are in the Special Directive.
If that wasn’t a “blink twice if you’re doing this against your will” moment, I don’t know what is.
Judge Arnold then found that it was not in the interest of justice to dismiss the special circumstances and sentencing enhancements and asked Ms. Blackburn if there was any other business to take care of. Here’s where it gets really interesting, and even more so when one understands the cast of characters.
Ms. Blackburn replied:
No. Mr. Herring is not the attorney of record on this case, it was Mr. Trujillo. We had discussed disposition. I thought that’s what we were going to do today. I would ask for the 28th.
DDA Herring was shocked, saying:
It’s news to me that I’m not the attorney of record on this case.
Ms. Blackburn clarified and explain who Mario Trujillo is to the judge, who claimed he had no idea who Trujillo was:
There’s an offer that was conveyed to me, that I conveyed to Mr. Dominguez, and —
[Trujillo is] in charge of special circumstances. At least was in contact with Ms. Blacknell prior to this date and conveyed an offer, which I conveyed to my client.
Then Judge Arnold asked what the plea deal was, and Blackburn said, “Seven years.” Whether or not she said it ashamedly or with a straight face, the transcript doesn’t reveal.
Judge Arnold allowed the continuance to December 28, saying:
Well, then, everybody needs to be here the next day because as far as I know, you’re [DDA Herring] the representative of the people.
On Monday, December 28, a supervisor from the DA’s hardcore gang unit appeared, along with Mr. Herring, the victim’s family, and yet another public defender. That supervisor told the judge that “any offer made by Trujillo is invalid.” Neither Trujillo, Blacknell, or Blackburn appeared to answer questions about how this purported plea bargain came about, and Gascon’s office refused to comment on the issue when asked by Fox LA’s Bill Melugin.
The DDA’s appearing on Monday told the judge that Trujillo never mentioned anything about a plea deal with Dominguez to them.
Given that Tiffany Blacknell is both an advisor for Gascon’s policy committee and a Deputy Public Defender, her involvement in plea deals for defendants she represents or has recently represented is a major conflict of interest. Then again, it’s tough to find two ounces of integrity total between the people in George Gascon’s inner circle.