Fresno County District Attorney Elizabeth Egan alleges in a new campaign advertisement that a 2011 plea deal cut by challenger Lisa Sondergaard Smittcamp freed a man "who should have gone to prison."
Last year, the man allegedly killed a woman while driving drunk.
Smittcamp says Egan's charge shows how little she knows about prosecuting complicated felony cases and, worse, compromised an active criminal case by airing its details in the advertisement.
The contentious ad — short on details and high on drama — is the latest flashpoint in the heated election battle between Egan, who is seeking a fourth term in office, and Smittcamp, her former employee.
It is running on television and landing in mailboxes across the county. It starts running today on radio.
Smittcamp said she plans to hold a news conference Tuesday to further comment on the ad.
At the center of the ad is Ricardo Rojas, 25, who was prosecuted by Smittcamp in 2011 for assaulting his girlfriend. The case ended in a plea deal.
Smittcamp sought time in state prison, but Fresno County Superior Court Judge Kristi Culver Kapetan sentenced Rojas to time served and he was freed on felony probation, according to court documents, Smittcamp and Rojas' attorney, Jack Revvill.
Last November, while allegedly driving drunk, Rojas was involved in a collision at Cedar and Bullard avenues in Fresno that resulted in the death of a woman. He was arrested and is in the Fresno County Jail on $313,000 bail.
"Lisa Smittcamp is campaigning on a platform of increasing plea bargaining," said Dave Gilliard, Egan's campaign manager. "She can try to blame the judge all she wants, but the fact is she was directly involved in this plea and could have stopped it."
Yes, Smittcamp said, she could have rejected the deal and taken the case to trial. But to do so, she said, could have ended with a jury letting Rojas walk free. Instead, she said, the end result was a felony conviction.
Smittcamp recounted key points of the initial Rojas case: It involved his girlfriend who was a reluctant witness; both she and Rojas had been drinking the night of the altercation and she hit him over the head with a wine bottle after he struck her.
A "savvy defense attorney" like Revvill could have exploited such facts before a jury, Smittcamp said.
"This is what Beth Egan doesn't understand because she was never a prosecutor who handled serious felony cases," Smittcamp said.
Gilliard said Egan had no knowledge of the deal that Smittcamp cut. He added that the DA's Office prosecutes thousands of cases each year, making it almost impossible for Egan to keep track of every case.
In the ad, a narrator says, "Ricardo Rojas assaulted a woman, and should have gone to prison. But Deputy DA Lisa Smittcamp plea-bargained the case. Because of Smittcamp's plea bargain, Rojas was back on the street, and months later, arrested again, this time for manslaughter in the death of a Fresno mother."
Gilliard said one of Smittcamp's campaign points is to "give more leeway to deputies to plea bargain. Egan thinks this is an example where Smittcamp had too much leeway."
The ad says that "when Smittcamp herself irresponsibly plea bargained, an innocent victim lost their life."
Gilliard said the ad goes to the heart of one of Egan's campaign points — that she opposes increasing the use of plea bargains or giving her lawyers more leeway to make deals.
Revvill, who was in the negotiations with Smittcamp and Kapetan, said the ad "bizarrely mischaracterizes the whole negotiating process and Lisa's role in the negotiating process." Revvill said he has not endorsed either candidate.
Smittcamp also said that Egan's ad has compromised her office's integrity on the case and could lead to a change of venue request by Rojas if the case goes to trial.
"No DA is ever ethically allowed to comment on a case while it is still pending," Smittcamp said. "What she does is puts politics over ethics and principle. She is using this case to gain political ground."
Revvill said that because of the ad, he is investigating a motion to recuse the Fresno County District Attorney's Office from prosecuting the case.
At some point down the road, he may also look into a change-of-venue motion.
But Gilliard said the ad makes none of that necessary.
"The ad makes no comment on any current case, it simply says that Rojas was 'arrested again, this time for manslaughter.' That is not a comment, but a simple fact that has previously been reported."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, email@example.com or @johnellis24 on Twitter.