San Diego's public defender system: Does it need work?

A San Diego man wrongly accused of raping a 14-year-old girl is free, thanks to Team 10, in a case that is now shedding light on what could be some problems with the local court system you help pay for.

Much of the case against Scott Espinosa was not as it seemed and it soon became clear that the victim, who was actually a woman in her 20s with three children (who she does not have custody of), had not been forthcoming with the truth.

It was Lindsay Peterson's testimony that put Espinosa behind bars but according to her mother, Theresa Peterson, her daughter had been a prostitute and had been using drugs for years. She said her daughter was a liar and anything she may have said to convict Espinosa was questionable at best.   The charges were  Espinosa held her captive, raped her and forced her to have sex with other men, including 10 men - two at a time.

Espinosa was found guilty, although he did have people in his corner questioning the victim's testimony and how the trial played out in general.

Espinosa's new attorney was granted a motion for a new trial, but rather than go through a second trial, Espinosa decided to plead to a lesser charge so he could get out of jail in a few days. He said he did not trust the system to get it right a second time.

Espinosa pleaded guilty to a pandering charge, or helping a prostitute. He said it was ironic because he's not a pimp. All of the rape charges were dropped.

Peterson now lives in Oregon, where she was from originally. She has been arrested there at least once on drug charges.

What Went Wrong?

Some of the finger pointing is directed at Espinosa's attorney, J.W. Carver.  Another attorney who filed for a new trial for Espinosa described the first trial with Carver as a "miscarriage of justice."

Robert Fellmeth with the Center for Law in the Public Interest reviewed elements of the trial and also criticized Carver.

"I was troubled by the lack of an aggressive defense at the trial level," he said.

Team 10 contacted Carver for a response, asking if he agreed with the characterization and whether he felt he was to blame for Espinosa being wrongly convicted.

Carver responded in an e-mail "J.W. - thank you for your inquiry. All your concerns were previously addressed long ago in pleadings, testimony and court rulings. The issues you are investigating are all matters of public record. Thanks again."

Carver is in private practice but also works for the Office of Assigned Counsel, one of the elements of San Diego's indigent defense services (others are the Public Defender's Office, Alternate Public Defender, Juvenile Delinquency and Multiple Conflict Office).

The entire group of indigent defense services receives about $75 million in tax dollars a year and uses 357 people to provide “quality legal assistance to individuals charged with a crime in state court who are financially unable to retain private counsel,” according to the county's website.

Is there any oversight? It appears there isn't.

Team 10 filed a California Public Records Request with the County of San Diego and the Office of Assigned Counsel and the response from the office shows they do not specifically track the success or failure history of attorneys working for their office.

We also asked for, and received, the payments made to Carver from the Office of Assigned Counsel for a period of five years. He made $116,000 last year from the service.

Carver was asked to attend additional training on handling of cases involving sexual abuse. He agreed to do so. The prosecutor in the case has since left the District Attorney's office.

The Back Story

Much of the case against Espinosa was not as it seemed and it soon became clear that the victim, who was actually a woman in her 20s with three children (who she does not have custody of), had not been forthcoming with the truth.

It was Lindsay Peterson's testimony that put Espinosa behind bars but according to her mother, Theresa Peterson, her daughter had been a prostitute and had been using drugs for years. She said her daughter was a liar and anything she may have said to convict Espinosa was questionable at best.   The charges were  Espinosa held her captive, raped her and forced her to have sex with other men, including 10 men - two at a time.

Espinosa was found guilty, although he did have people in his corner questioning the victim's testimony and how the trial played out in general.

Espinosa's new attorney was granted a motion for a new trial, but rather than go through a second trial, Espinosa decided to plead to a lesser charge so he could get out of jail in a few days. He said he did not trust the system to get it right a second time.

Espinosa pleaded guilty to a pandering charge, or helping a prostitute. He said it was ironic because he's not a pimp. All of the rape charges were dropped.

Peterson now lives in Oregon, where she was from originally. She has been arrested there at least once on drug charges.  

Timeline

  • Feb 6, 2012 - Espinosa is arrested on numerous charges, including two counts of rape.
  • Nov. 20, 2012 - Espinosa is convicted of all charges, except for one of the two counts of rape (the jury hung on the one rape charge).
  • Jan. 18, 2013 - Espinosa's attorney files a number of post-trial motions, including a motion for a new trial. Espinosa remained in local custody, convicted by a jury of the charges, pending the decision on that motion.
  • May 20, 2013 - Espinosa's motion for a new trial is granted. A trial date of August 19, 2013 is set.
  • August 1, 2013 - Espinosa pleads out to pandering. The court sends the court's abstract recording of the plea and indicates that Espinosa is to be released with credit for time served.

Espinosa said his time behind bars was made worse by incorrect information that was left on a website for too long.

You have to know the background of this case to understand this completely but during his time in custody he was listed by the San Diego Sheriff's Department (we can't tell exactly how long) as the rapist of a 14-year-old girl. The document in question is a 'Who Is In Jail' inmate detail, which is the initial arrest information.

According to Espinosa, he told the prosecutor and the defense attorney during his arraignment that the information on the inmate detail was incorrect and that the San Diego Police Department already knew that.

But Espinosa said the document stayed online for months, which led to his involvement in a number of fights (because his fellow prisoners did not take kindly to that type of crime). He said the fighting got so bad that he was forced to spend eight months in solitary confinement.

According to the San Diego Sheriff's Department, their staff updates charges based off of court documents and the Jail Information Management System then transfers the information to the 'Who Is In Jail' website. They say the court is responsible for updating changes with regard to inmates.

We have contacted the Superior Court for their reaction to the story and are awaiting a response.
 

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