In the wake of the announcement that the Alameda County District Attorney's Office declined to press charges in the case of a Pleasanton man injured outside his home, DA Nancy O'Malley discussed the investigation and her office's decision in a question-and-answer session with the Pleasanton Weekly.
David Lamont was found lying on the street, bleeding and comatose, when he didn't return to his Middleton Place home after confronting teens making noise in the quiet cul-de-sac where he lived on Sept. 21. Police said four teens cooperated with the ensuing investigation.
During the Q&A, O'Malley elaborated on her office's decision not to pursue criminal charges in connection with the incident.
Question: In a general sense, what's the standard that a DA's office applies when deciding whether or not a criminal case can be charged?
Nancy O'Malley: "At the time of review, the police report and all the evidence that is presented by the police, which could include medical records, taped statements or photographs -- at that time, the prosecutor has to have a reasonable belief that the case can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and that standard, of 'beyond a reasonable doubt' is what we have to prove to find someone guilty of a crime."
Q: When a person is severely injured after an altercation, public sentiment often moves toward wanting criminal charges to be filed so someone is held accountable. Are there instances in the law when it would be improper for a prosecutor to file charges, despite the existence of severe injury to one party?
O'Malley: "If the case is not legally provable, then it would be improper for the prosecutor to file charges. There is some strong wording that defines prosecutorial ethics -- and particularly in the context of filing charges -- which really addresses that the evidence had to exist at the time of charging. And the prosecutor making that decision cannot be swayed by public pressure or bias or prejudice. Those are improper bases for filing charges."
Q: Does the D.A.'s Office ever just roll the dice?
The DA used an example of a sexual assault in which a child and an adult might have differing stories; in a case such as that, she said, a prosecutor might rely on the child's statement.
"If the evidence exists and the prosecutor believes the evidence to be true, that case could move forward into the system. It's pushing the envelope, but it's pushing the envelope with the legal evidence to do so."
Q: Could you explain the law of self-defense? We hear a lot about Florida's "stand your ground" law. Does this apply in California? How does it differ from Florida's laws?
O'Malley: "There is a 'stand your ground' law in California. The 'stand your ground law' is specifically mentioned in the legal instructions having to do with self-defense. In California, the law does not require a person to retreat from an attack. That person who's attacked has the right to, as they call it, stand his ground or her ground and defend himself or herself.
"What's also clear under California law, not so clear in Florida and other states -- California's 'stand your ground' law would only allow a person to use like force, so if someone hit me, I couldn't pull out a gun and shoot them, that's not what the law allows.
"The law also talks about how a person who is attacked does have the right to use that like force in self-defense as long as the danger exists."
Q: How are the laws you just discussed applicable in the Pleasanton matter?
O'Malley: "The evidence shows that Mr. Lamont confronted the young men who were across the street or in the area of his house. The evidence also shows that Mr. Lamont headbutted or hit the young man in the face, and the injuries that the young man received are consistent with that. And the evidence also tells us that in response to being hit, the young man hit Mr. Lamont back in the face and he fell down. The medical findings are consistent with Mr. Lamont hitting his head on the ground."
The DA said California does not have a good Samaritan law that requires someone to intervene in the case of a crime.
Q: There was an in-depth investigation done by Pleasanton police and I understand that your office was kept informed of the investigation. True?
O'Malley: "Yes. I believe that they (police) worked closely with the head of that (DA's office) branch in Pleasanton, James Meehan."
Q: Reports are that there were five individuals at the scene of this matter. Was there ever any indication that there was more than one person who had physical contact with Mr. Lamont?
O'Malley: "No. The evidence says only the young man was hit. He was the only one who had contact with Mr. Lamont."
Q: As part of the investigation, were your office and the police department able to interview physicians and review medical records?
O'Malley: "Yes we did. The police department did, under the direction of Mr. Meehan, and we do have records."
O'Malley explained that medical records are sealed under HIPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability) laws, but that a judge can issue a subpoena to review medical records if it involves allegations of a crime.
Q: Based upon the findings of the investigation, did it become clear to the police as well as to your office that there was no legal basis to file criminal charges?
O'Malley: "It was clear to us and I believe it was also clear to the police, because of this law of self-defense, and (that) there's no evidence we have to overcome that law of self-defense in this particular case."
Q: Your office has been criticized by some in the Pleasanton community for not prosecuting this case. Can you speak to this concern as a whole?
O'Malley: "We have to look with an independent eye and we have to look at what the law says. People don't know what happened. They don't know what the actual facts are. That's always a balancing act, what we can disclose to the public, what we should disclose to the public."
O'Malley said in a case where a prosecution would occur, no evidence would be released, and that the case would be decided in court.
To learn more, read the most recent Pleasanton Weekly story about the incident.