Kary Antholis:

On today’s podcast, we present an exclusive conversation with Eric Siddall, Vice President of the Association of Deputy District Attorney’s, the professional association for the deputy district attorneys (DDAs) of Los Angeles County. In his capacity as Vice President of the ADDA, Eric spoke with me about a variety of issues related to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office. We will present most of that interview next week. However, on March 24, Eric sent out an email excoriating the presiding judge of Los Angeles and calling the courts:  “the weakest link in government’s response to the coronavirus. Los Angeles County can shut down visitation to the juvenile facilities and the jails, but if the lawyers are inadvertently infecting inmates, a public health crisis will ravage our juvenile detention facilities and jails. At that point the County will be left to contend with an even more dire situation.” In the interest of timeliness, today we present Eric’s remarks about the impact of what he called “Judicial Inaction” in response to the public health emergency. One final note: this conversation took place on April 5. At the end of the interview, I will pass along an updated assessment from Eric.

Kary Antholis:

I’d like to offer you an opportunity to discuss something that you see as an urgent matter. The way that California’s chief justice and the Los Angeles presiding judge are handling the COVID-19 crisis. About two weeks ago you issued a letter about what you termed judicial inaction by the chief justice and the presiding judge. And in the letter, you said the orders from both the California chief justice and the Los Angeles presiding judge “lack clarity and action. They disregard all science behind slowing down and defeating this pandemic. Meanwhile, they’re giving the public the misconception that the judicial branch is on top of it, far from it.” Would you talk us through what led you to issue that letter and whether in the last two weeks you’ve seen any adjustments in the efforts of the chief justice or the presiding judge in the right direction?

Eric Siddall:

So I wrote that letter because the way our judiciary was responding seemed to me that, not only was it putting the lives of people working in the court system in danger, but it was also putting the general public in danger because it was the one area where people can still gather in very close spaces and be able to spread the virus.

Eric Siddall:

And what infuriated me was that judge Brazile issued some order prohibiting the general public from being allowed inside the courthouses a couple of days after the governor, the County and the city issued an order basically saying, unless you are an essential person, you’re not allowed to leave your house. Right? So the court’s response was basically something that the governor had already taken care of and the County had always taken care of and the city had already taken care of in it’s orders. So it didn’t seem to me that they were actually taking this seriously.

Eric Siddall:

Our union and the public defender’s union actually for the first time took joint action calling for the presiding judge to take better action. We were going to court and the courts were handling the COVID situation as though this was some really bad flu that was just creeping up. They were completely disregarding what was happening in China. They were totally disregarding the governor’s orders or the spirit of the governor’s orders and they were just acting like it was business as usual.

Eric Siddall:

They’d put up some bogus sanitizers that no one could actually use in the court courthouses. You go into court room, the entire court room would be full of people. They weren’t regulating the amount of people that were going in and out and then they were giving orders that made it sound like they were trying to do something which they were doing nothing.

Eric Siddall:

Oh, and orders that they would actually issue, other judges would have to try to interpret what those orders meant. So you would have Judge Brazile issuing an order and it was so incomprehensible that even judges within that same district were having difficulty interpreting it. That other judges would have to write memos on what the order actually meant. It’s insane, if you think about it.

Eric Siddall:

Your supervising judge can’t issue an order clear enough so you have to have another judge write a memo to explain what that judge meant. And the same thing was happening within the California Supreme Court. The Chief Justice finally issued an order and judges would be like, “I have no idea what this means. I think I know what it means but we’re not sure about it.”

Eric Siddall:

Finally, a couple of days ago or last week, I think it was exactly a week ago, the chief justice finally issued an order that actually made sense. And she basically weighed most of the statutory rights to a speedy preliminary hearing and the speedy trial rights, waived those statutory rights and increased the time limits so that we can deal with these cases effectively.

Eric Siddall:

What they should’ve done, and this is what they did in other courthouses in other jurisdictions, is that they didn’t wait for the chief justice to issue an order. In other counties they declared a court holiday and they said, “We’re not reopening until we can figure out how to do video conferencing and be able to handle our cases remotely.” And so it was extremely frustrating to see that our governor was doing an amazing job in handling this crisis or board of supervisors was doing an amazing job and yet there’s this one large part of our government, the judicial branch that was just failing.

Eric Siddall:

And so I think that’s why I wrote that letter. That’s why our public defender’s union and our union got together and made elicit demands and we’re finally starting to see some action happen, but it should have happened way back then because this actually doesn’t really affect DAs as much as it affects the deputy sheriffs, because they’re the bailiffs, you have to deal in close proximity with the inmates.

Eric Siddall:

It affects the inmates because they’re being transported back and forth and having more and more outside exposure. It Affects the public defenders because they’re the ones who are going to court still, dealing with their clients in a very direct manner. Then probably a little further down the list it affects the clerks who work in our courts. Then it probably affects the DAs, the police officers who had to come in and out of the courtroom, they were also getting effected. Then the very last group of people that this affects are the judges. They have their private parking lot. They go up a private elevator to their private offices and they go on the bench where they are at least 10 feet away from everyone.

Eric Siddall:

They were the last group that was actually physically being affected by this whole thing. And for all those people leave the quarantine at some point and go back to their homes and infect other people. So it was infuriating to see the court’s lack of action.

Kary Antholis:

Where do you see the process heading in the next 60 days in terms of not just hearings but in terms of jury trials. Because the one group that you didn’t really talk about, and it’s partly because the jury trials were suspended relatively early in that timeline, was the juries. But given that even after we pass the peak period in this episode of the outbreak in Los Angeles, how do you see us moving ahead safely with jury trials in the near future?

Eric Siddall:

Well, I think you have to wait until this pandemic is over before you can start to have jury trials again. You can’t having massive amount of people congregate in the same space. It’s a public health issue. And you’re right, the reason why I didn’t mention jurors, because at least they stopped the jurors from coming in. That was the one thing that they actually did do was cancel all jury trials.

Eric Siddall:

Again in the most poorly drafted order where it was very confusing about when jury trials would resume and whether all jury trials would have to resume exactly on the same day. That was why the order was so confusing. But yeah, you can’t really do jury trials until it’s safe to do so.

Kary Antholis:

Do you think that there’s any scenario in which jury trials would be conducted by video as well?

Eric Siddall:

I don’t see how you can do that.

Kary Antholis:

Before we move on from the pandemic, tell me about how the district attorney’s office and the district attorney’s association is approaching the potential for COVID-19 spreading in the prisons and the governor’s approach to early release and pretrial release in the context of the pandemic.

Eric Siddall:

So I think what the governor has done in terms of suspending parole board hearings until the parole board can figure out how to do this through video conferencing and also the governor’s order to suspend the transfer from County jail to the state prisons or from the juvenile detention facilities in the County to the division of juvenile justice, which is the equivalent of a state prison for juveniles. I think that was really smart.

Eric Siddall:

He recognized the problem and he dealt with it early. I have to say this governor has been such a great surprise in terms of how he handled this pandemic compared to other governors and other national leaders. He’s taken responsibility for things that he didn’t do correctly, which is the testing issues, but yet he also quickly took action in terms of trying to make sure that the virus wasn’t spreading into our prison system.

Eric Siddall:

I think one of the best ways for this virus to get into our state prison would have been to start transporting County prisoners or County inmates into our state prison system. So he stopped that. One of the reasons why I think our County system is vulnerable, because of the amount of exposure our County inmates are having by having to come to court, talking to their lawyers, especially we’ve had a few cases where public defenders have gotten ill and had the virus, went to work and spoke to their clients. It’s a means of the virus getting into our County jail systems.

Eric Siddall:

In terms of what we have done in terms of our office is we work with our other justice partners to identify those people who don’t absolutely need to be in County jail. And I’ve done this on a few of my cases as well. You go into court and get them released under a house monitoring or house arrest or something like that. Use other alternatives than keeping them confined in County jail so that we can free up space and deal with the inmate population in a responsible manner. And maybe I haven’t seen this, but I haven’t heard the governor talking about giving an amnesty. It could deal with the COVID issue in state prison.

Kary Antholis:

One of the things that stimulated that question was that he granted clemency in several cases over the last couple of weeks, four of which were clients represented by the California Innocence Project up in San Francisco. I assume most of those cases were San Francisco cases. I don’t know if any of the Loyola Innocence Project clients were granted clemency as well. And I don’t know if there were any cases that the DA’s office and the prosecutor’s association had an opinion on.

Eric Siddall:

No, I looked at the cases and some of them seemed a little shocking, like the mom who burnt her kids alive. But at this point, I don’t think I would be able to comment on any of the releases that the governor’s made in terms of those particular granted clemency because I don’ know the cases that well. But bottom line is I think the governor’s done a fantastic job in dealing with this crisis and is appropriately taking responsibility where he has failed. And in terms of protecting the state prison population, I’ve taken all the necessary steps to make sure that we can really slow down the spread within our prison system.

Kary Antholis:

That concludes my conversation with Eric Siddal regarding the Los Angeles Criminal Courts’ initial response to the COVID-19 crisis. This past Saturday, Eric emailed me the foillowing update: “The courts are doing a lot better now. They finally got their act together. Not perfect, but better.” As I mentioned at the top of the podcast, next week Crime Story will present a full conversation with Eric about his path to becoming prosecutor and his work as a Deputy DA, and as a leader of the ADDA. We will also explore his response to initiatives aimed at reforming the criminal legal process.

For more storytelling, news and narrative analysis in the world of crime and justice head on over to CrimeStory.com. Thank you for joining us and we hope you will come back for the next crime story podcast.