Testimony from the Louis LePlat murder trial, now in the jury deliberation phase, is revealing more than details about the case.
According to the defense attorney for LePlat, the testimony is also drudging up details about a complex web of questionable behavior by the Inyo County District Attorney’s Office, involving deals with jailhouse informants, reliance on “shady” witnesses and political sabotage.
District Attorney Art Maillet was unavailable for comment, and has refused to respond to media inquiries for months.
LePlat is facing first-degree murder charges for allegedly killing James Eric Rambeau, Jr. on the Bishop Paiute Reservation in June 2009. The trial is in its 16th day with the jury in its third day of deliberations. LePlat’s public defender in Ventura County, Neil Quinn, explained some of the twists and turns of the case by phone on Wednesday.
LePlat’s case was transferred to Ventura after a judge granted the defendant a change of venue last year due to the high volume of media coverage of the case, which was determined to have prevented LePlat from receiving a fair trial locally.
Inyo County District Attorney Maillet responded to the ruling by accusing the local media of “sensationalizing” the case, and said neither he nor his office would be speaking to reporters from that point on.
LePlat was originally charged with murder on June 23, 2009 following the stabbing death of Rambeau on June 19. LePlat’s trial started in Ventura on April 5, 2011.
During the trail, hundreds of pieces of evidence were admitted and dozens of witnesses took the stand, including Inyo County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeff Hollowell, seven local residents, Inyo County Deputy District Attorney Joel Samuels and former Deputy D.A. Mark Johnson.
Quinn said the story of the Inyo D.A.’s Office’s questionable behavior began with the testimony of the prosecutor’s witness, Daniel Casteel, on April 6. Casteel faces a myriad of criminal charges related to earlier arrests for alleged embezzlement and drug-related crimes, and was serving time in the cell next to LePlat in Inyo County Jail. Quinn said it was during that time – around June 2009 – that Casteel “pumped” LePlat for information about the murder, motivated by a deal he’d struck with the D.A.’s office.
Casteel’s reason for testifying at all was questioned by Quinn. Quinn asked Deputy District Attorney Joel Samuels, who is handling LePlat’s case, to testify if Casteel was given “special consideration” for testifying against LePlat.
Casteel had recently skipped out of a drug rehabilitation facility he was court-ordered to attend in the Bay Area, but “mysteriously shows up just two weeks before the trial,” Quinn explained. Casteel was not criminally charged for running out of the rehab center and his bail was set at $0.
Samuels told the court he could not remember any such deal-making conversations with Casteel. Quinn said he had records showing Casteel was to be given a “sweet deal” for his cooperation with the D.A.
Records also showed that former Deputy D.A. Johnson was also involved with the LePlat case before Johnson’s resignation. Johnson took the stand and was sworn in before Quinn asked him about the deal with Casteel, which Johnson said he had no recollection of. Then Quinn asked Johnson about his work history and reason for leaving the Inyo D.A.’s Office in July 2010.
Quinn said Johnson described his reason for leaving as the result of “a brouhaha” that surfaced after Johnson had released personal and confidential documents about attorney Gerard Harvey to the Sierra Wave, a local radio and television station, in October 2010. Harvey was running against Maillet in his re-election bid for D.A. at the time.
Quinn then asked Johnson, “Did Maillet authorize the release of Harvey’s records?”
Johnson answered, “Yes.”
Quinn added that Casteel was also used as an informant against Harvey in 2009. Quinn said it was Casteel who told the D.A. that Harvey had threatened witnesses and obtained drugs from Casteel. These charges against Harvey were eventually dropped. Harvey was Casteel’s public defender at the time of Harvey’s arrest on the witness intimidation charges in January 2009. Quinn added that records also show that Casteel was denied a deal with the D.A. until he “fired” Harvey.
Quinn said that Casteel’s testimony at the LePlat trial was not consistent with that of other witnesses. Casteel’s testimony included saying that Rambeau was on LePlat’s “hit list” and that LePlat had come back a second time the nigh of the incident to “finish him off.” Quinn said this is not in line with other testimony. Quinn called the ordeal between LePlat and Rambeau “a bar fight gone wrong.”
Quinn added that Maillet was trying to sell Casteel as a “good Samaritan” doing his civic duty to testify against LePlat.
Quinn said Casteel said under oath, “I’ve been praying, and this thing just falls into my lap.”
Quinn said Casteel was giving the D.A.’s Office information about Harvey and LePlat, but Casteel was considered an unreliable witness, “until Harvey decided to run against Maillet.”
“Casteel has a remarkable way of embellishing the truth,” Quinn said. He said that the only reason he can understand why Casteel was used as a witness is because Casteel’s testimony, no matter how outlandish, is the only testimony that states LePlat pre-meditated the murder, and could justify a first-degree murder charge.
“It’s very clear that LePlat did engage in the facts of the case,” Quinn said, “but to what degree.”
Quinn said that he expects the jury to find LePlat guilty of manslaughter, perhaps second-degree, but not first-degree as Maillet has wanted since early in the case.
Quinn said he does not want to speculate on Maillet’s reasoning for using Casteel, but he said he has seen prosecutors fight for a big conviction in high profile cases, or perhaps there is “something personal.”
Quinn estimates it has cost the county $50,000 to have Casteel testify – including travel expenses, extra witnesses and time spent raking through Casteel’s records and files.
Quinn said that in his closing arguments on Monday, he attacked Casteel’s credibility and unreliablity.
Quinn said Maillet conceded in his closing arguments that Casteel’s testimony is questionable, “then a minute later Maillet uses Casteel’s testimony as fact in his argument.”
Quinn added, “I’ve been very disappointed.” Quinn said Maillet’s office showed a lack of responsibility by not coming clean about the deal set with Casteel, Casteel’s credibility and about getting documents to Quinn in a timely matter.
Quinn added he does not make predictions of case outcomes and that this is not “an open and shut case.”