A police lieutenant accused the Orange County, California, district attorney of trying to cover up a "derogatory and racist" comment made during a meeting about sentencing a suspect, a move that police fear could impact the prosecution of a high-profile murder case.
The comment was made by District Attorney Todd Spitzer who, according to memos obtained by BuzzFeed News, was meeting with eight other prosecutors to discuss the possibility of seeking the death penalty in the case when he said that "he knows many black people who get themselves out of their bad circumstances and bad situations by only dating 'white women.'" The county's top prosecutor then added he'd known a Black man in college who "for sure" had done that.
Spitzer on Wednesday told BuzzFeed News that it had been appropriate for him to discuss race, which he said had first been brought up in the case by the defense attorneys.
The conversation in which Black men's dating habits came up involved Jamon Rayon Buggs, a 44-year-old personal trainer accused of killing a man and a woman in Newport Beach, shooting both in the head.
But after learning the district attorney's office had made the decision to seek out life without parole without notifying the victims' families, and that the office had taken the unusual step of reassigning it to another prosecutor outside the homicide division, Lt. Court Depweg began to make inquiries about what motivated the changes.
The letter shows that the Newport Beach Police officer seemed concerned about whether Spitzer's comment was disclosed to the court. Under criminal proceedings, prosecutors are required to disclose all information on a case, as well as possibly exculpatory evidence.
"I have received consistent information that during the Special Circumstances Meeting on or about October 1, 2021, regarding whether to seek the death penalty in the matter of Jamon Buggs, the elected District Attorney, Todd Spitzer, made an unsolicited, derogatory, and racist comment about Black men/persons," Depweg wrote.
According to the letter, Depweg made several inquiries to the district attorney's office to understand what happened, on Jan. 27, Jan. 28, and Jan. 31. Then on Feb. 2, he reached out to the office to say he'd learned about Spitzer making an "inappropriate" comment about Buggs. Depweg's letter to the judge was dated Feb. 3. The following week, the prosecutor who initially flagged concerns about Spitzer's comments in a memo was fired.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Spitzer said the office was limited in what it could tell Depweg "because we had already gone to the judge and the issue was being litigated in court."
"It is completely understandable that there would be some confusion by other parties because the ongoing litigation prevented us from discussing details of the proceedings," Spitzer said.
The district attorney’s office notified the court of Spitzer's comment about Black men on Feb. 2, the same day that Depweg had reached out to the office and said he had been made aware of the statement and urged for it to be disclosed.
The District Attorney's office, however, refuted the notion that they notified the court because of Depweg's inquiry. A spokesperson for the department said prosecutors had already decided, on Jan. 28, to notify the judge and share several of the documents surrounding the comment.
Kimberly Edds, the spokesperson for the district attorney's office told BuzzFeed News the court was notified Feb. 2 and the documents were filed Feb. 4.
Edds also added criminal proceedings had been suspended until Jan. 31, while the suspect's mental capacity was being evaluated for his defense.
On Thursday, Spitzer said in a statement that he would have be willing to take a call from the Newport Beach Police to address their concerns, but no call was made.
"When my head of homicide expressed to me that Newport Beach police had questions about the status of the case and asked if I would take a phone call, I said [they] could call me anytime," Spitzer said in a statement. "No one ever called me."
Spitzer told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday that the prosecutor who'd first written a memo on the comments was fired for failing to disclose evidence about an informant in an unrelated 2010 case, not for disclosing what the attorney general said about Black men.
In the letter to Judge Gregg Prickett, Depweg also said he'd accused the district attorney's office of trying to cover up for their boss's comment.
Officials told Depweg that everyone who had been involved in the meeting where the comment was made had been "walled off" and prohibited from speaking about the case.
"That wasn't being walled off, that action was calculated and deliberate," Depweg wrote. "I advised [Assistant District Attorney Steve] McGreevy that the actions by his office would affect our working relationship moving forward and it was disappointing that he and so many of his colleagues would try and cover this matter up as we all know the 'cover up is always worse than the crime.'"
In his own memo on Jan. 30, Spitzer wrote that the prosecutor who originally put the conversation into writing had misremembered his exact words. The prosecutor later changed the reference that Spitzer had said Black men date white women to “get themselves out of their bad circumstances” to instead read “to enhance their status by.”
Spitzer said he had provided Black conservative talk radio host Larry Elder as an example.
“The only thing I stated was that I have seen Black men date White women in certain circles in order to have others around them be more accepting,” he wrote in the Jan. 30 memo.
That didn't seem to quell the concerns from some prosecutors within Spitzer's office about the generalization he'd made about Black men.
"Todd has doubled down on his generalization of Black men," one senior deputy district attorney, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid professional retaliation, told BuzzFeed News. "He has gone on record with news outlets stating his belief that Black men date white women to 'improve their stature in the community.' He fails to understand that his beliefs and generalizations are, at their core, racist."
In his letter, Depweg appeared concerned that the statement had not been disclosed to the court or defense attorneys in the case.
"I have a constitutional duty as a member of the prosecution team to turn over to the Court and Defense any and all exculpatory information that may be material to the case," he wrote. "If the elected District Attorney made a comment that is derogatory in nature towards Black men/persons during the death penalty review, then I believe the Court is the proper body to determine if discovery to the Defense is appropriate."