A judge on Friday refused a request by prosecutors to dismiss criminal charges against a Newport Beach surgeon and his girlfriend accused of drugging and raping several women, and he raised concerns about the Orange County District Attorney’s Office’s ability to continue being involved in the case.
The ruling by Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregory Jones marks the latest surprise turn in a high-profile criminal case against Dr. Grant Robicheaux and Cerissa Riley that has drawn international attention.
Both the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and attorneys for Robicheaux and Riley are arguing that the sexual-assault and kidnapping charges should be dismissed over the objections of lawyers for the victims.
During a brief video-conference hearing Friday, Judge Jones not only stated that dropping the charges would not be in the public’s interest, but he also said that the public confidence in the case could be “severely undermined” if the Orange County District Attorney’s Office remains involved.
The judge gave the DA’s office a week to respond to his concerns.
Robicheaux and Riley’s attorneys demanded a quick move to a preliminary hearing, where a judge decides if there is enough evidence for a case to go to jury trial.
The couple’s defense attorneys did not respond for comment. The DA’s Office said it still believes the case should be dismissed.
“We have represented to the court on multiple occasions that we do not have the evidence to prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt, and therefore we cannot legally, ethically, and morally proceed with the prosecution of this case,” said Spitzer in a statement following the ruling. “My sworn duty is to pursue justice and ensure that the rights of victims and defendants are protected, and we are reviewing the court’s ruling to determine the next steps for this case.”
Robicheaux and Riley are both facing three counts of kidnapping with intent to commit sexual offense, among other charges connected to seven women.
The judge, in a written opinion released after his ruling, stressed that he was not “weighing or evaluating the strength or weakness of anticipated evidence,” but said it was “puzzling” that he was being asked to dismiss the case before any alleged victims have the opportunity to testify.
“The public has heard from the politicians,” Jones wrote. “The public has never heard from the alleged victims. Any objective analysis of this case leads to the conclusion that these charges should be put before a jury. A back-room dismissal by prosecutors without the alleged victims ever having the opportunity to be heard is contrary to the core values of our legal process and the interests of the public.”
The ruling comes as newly unsealed court filings both backing and opposing the dropping of charges further outline several serious accusations surrounding the case.
Prosecutors now describe Robicheaux and Riley as Newport Beach swingers who “openly pursued scores of women for consensual sexual encounters,” as opposed to the alleged serial sexual-assault predators the same office previously accused them of being.
Attorneys for the alleged victims, however, argue that politics has infected the case, and they are fighting to have it taken away from the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.
Less than two years ago, then-DA Tony Rackauckas made international headlines in announcing that Robicheaux and Riley were suspected of using their good looks to meet women in bars and restaurants in Newport Beach, then drugging them and luring them back to Robicheaux’s apartment to sexually assault them.
Rackauckas, during several highly publicized news conferences, spotlighted Robicheaux’s appearance on a Bravo reality dating show, and compared the couple to wolves in sheep’s clothing.
He described police finding guns and narcotics – including “date-rape drugs” – during a search of Robicheaux’s apartment. He alleged that videos recorded by the pair apparently show sex acts with women who appeared too intoxicated to consent.
In February, current DA Todd Spitzer made the surprise announcement that the Orange County DA’s Office would seek dismissal of the criminal charges against Robicheaux and Riley; Spitzer described a lack of evidence and concerns over misconduct by his predecessor.
Spitzer, during a press conference and a subsequent court hearing, said a lengthy review of the case found not a single piece of evidence that showed “an unconscious or incapacitated woman being sexually assaulted.” He also apologized to Robicheaux and Riley, describing them as being “mistreated by the system.”
Those comments angered at least some of the alleged victims, who said they received only minutes notice that Spitzer was planning to announce the dropping of charges.
Matt Murphy – a former top Orange County homicide prosecutor who is now representing some of the women – argued that dropping the charges would be a “disaster for justice,” and suggested that the California Attorney General’s Office either pick up the case or appoint a special prosecutor.
A recent DA brief, written by senior deputy district attorneys Rick Zimmer and Karyn Stokke, describes Robicheaux and Riley as having “actively engaged in group sex with many women and openly used drugs with them.”
The couple and those they had sex with did not use GHB as a “date rape” drug, the prosecutors wrote, but as an “open, notorious and joint enterprise.”
The prosecutors wrote that none of the women who contacted law enforcement “made a clear expression of a lack of consent, such that the defendants would not have reasonably believed their encounters with the alleged victims were consensual.” At times, the prosecutors wrote, the couple stopped sexual acts when the women told them to stop.
The prosecutors blamed much of the case’s problems on a DA investigator who they allege took control of the investigation away from the Newport Beach Police Department and “developed a cognitive bias in favor of prosecution.”
The prosecutors allege that their investigator used “overtly suggestive interview techniques” with the women, left key information out of her reports and engaged in a “whisper campaign” with the leaders of the DA’s office to exaggerate the alleged evidence against Robicheaux and Riley.
The prosecutors allege that the investigator also “persuaded women to identify as victims, where they did not initially believes themselves to be one.”
The investigator, a former detective with the Long Beach Police Department’s sex crimes unit, is currently on administrative leave, DA officials said.
“As this court has aptly stated, the case of the People V (versus) Grant Robicheaux and Cerissa Riley is indeed a ‘toxic cocktail,’” the prosecutors wrote to Judge Jones. “But, its true toxicity stems not from the political hurricane surrounding it, but, in large part, from the poisonous results of investigative impropriety. Although this prosecution was initiated in good faith, its evidentiary underpinnings have been found rotten and would have immediately collapsed under the harsh scrutiny of a jury trial.”
Murphy, writing on behalf of several of the alleged victims, took aim at Spitzer, accusing him of making decisions “colored by raw personal animus” against his predecessor and “naked political calculation,” and alleged the DA was “colluding” with Robicheaux’s defense attorneys.
Murphy noted that Spitzer had taken the case away from an experienced prosecutor and assigned it to two “less-experienced counsel” and said Spitzer, after removing the investigator, had “effectively stymied the ongoing investigation by failing to assign a new investigator.”
“These women do not know each other and they have never met,” Murphy wrote. “They have no mutual friends, and they live in different areas of the state, country and even halfway across the world. These women were victimized on separate dates and times, and yet all have alleged similar, and sometimes nearly identical, accounts of being assaulted by the defendants.”
Murphy noted that many of the women described “classic symptoms of GHB intoxication,” pointing out that Robicheaux, who he described as a trained physician who would be well aware of the drug’s effects, had “significant quantities” of it in his home.
“The specific details of the horrifying ordeals suffered by each of the women in this case are real and are vividly apparent, indelibly portrayed in the lasting effects on their lives and in other corroborating evidence available to the prosecution,” Murphy wrote. “As the court has correctly pointed out, a jury could readily choose to believe one, some, or all of the victims.”
In his written ruling, Judge Jones said that in his review of recorded interviews with the alleged victims, he found “no fault” by the investigator or other investigators, noting that she repeatedly told the women that “we don’t want to put words in your mouth.”
The judge acknowledged that there were many inconsistencies in the statements made by victims. But he also noted that “cognitive deficiencies and recall issues are to be expected when the subject crime is rape by use of drugs. …
“If is hard for this court to understand how Mr. Spitzer and his deputies can reject the allegations of seven women they have never met or interviewed,” Jones wrote. “It is apparent that the ‘rogue’ investigator met with many of the victims and apparently found them believable.”
In response, DA spokeswoman Kimberly Edds said that Spitzer at the time he announced his intention to drop the charges offered to speak to the victims before bringing the request to court, and some of the women took the DA and the current prosecutors on the case up on the offer.
The next court hearing in the case is scheduled for June 12. It will be conducted by telephone and live-streamed, as the courts remain largely closed to the public because of the coronavirus concerns.
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Author: Sean Emery