LA Judge Defies DA in Gang Murder Case; DA Accused of Backdoor Deal

January 1, 2021 Updated: January 3, 2021

Los Angeles County’s new, embattled district attorney, George Gascón, is facing allegations that his special adviser, Mario Trujillo, offered a backdoor “sweetheart” deal in the case of a gang member charged with murder.

Gascón has faced a backlash—including being sued by the county’s deputy district attorneys—for his sweeping reform of the county’s criminal justice system since he stepped into office on Dec. 7.

His office issued a brief reply to The Epoch Times denying that Trujillo offered a backdoor deal in the case of Rudy Dominguez.

Dominguez is an admitted 18th Street gang member charged with the murder of 26-year-old Fernando Rojo Jr., attempted murder of five others, and six counts of discharging a firearm from a vehicle.

In hearing the case on Dec. 15 and Dec. 28, Judge Mark S. Arnold criticized and defied Gascón’s reforms, which would provide leniency in sentencing for Dominguez.

During the Dec. 15 hearing, Dominguez’s defense attorney Traci Blackburn also said Trujillo had offered a backdoor deal that would give the defendant a seven-year sentence. He was otherwise looking at the possibility of life without parole.

Blackburn said, according to a hearing transcript obtained by The Epoch Times, that the offer “was conveyed to me.” Arnold asked “From who?”

“I believe it was Mario Trujillo,” Jeffrey Herring, the prosecutor, said. “I’ve also been told from a separate set of supervisors there is no offer, and that’s why we’re in a conundrum today.”

Blackburn then confirmed that the offer came from Trujillo. The matter would be picked back up at the Dec. 28 hearing. At the Dec. 15 hearing, Arnold began his defiance of Gascón’s controversial reform banning most enhancements, which are additional charges or penalties based on the gravity of the crime or the defendant’s criminal history.

Judge Pushes Back on Reforms

Herring said at the hearing that enhancements shouldn’t be allowed in Dominguez’s case “in the interest of justice.”

“And the interest of justice is met how?” Arnold asked.

Herring said he’s following the new DA’s position that extended prison sentences are too long, costly, ineffective, and “harm people in underserved communities.”

At that point, Arnold initiated a dialogue with the victim’s four family members who were present.

“What do you think about eliminating all of these allegations that Mr. Herring’s office is looking to eliminate?” he asked America Rojo, the sister of the deceased.

“I’m sorry, I don’t think it’s fair,” she said.

“Are you crying?” Judge Arnold asked. “Why are you crying?”

“I just feel that we need justice,” America Rojo said. “It’s just not fair that he—if he doesn’t get as much years.”

The victim’s mother, Teresa Rojo, echoed the same sentiment.

“It’s not fair that they would lower many years … because somebody who is doing harm to people, they should pay,” she said.

After hearing from the family, the court cited 1975’s People vs. Orin to define what “the interest of justice” means, concluding that, “if courts terminated prosecutions of crimes or enhancements … without adequate reason, it would frustrate the orderly and effective operation of our criminal justice procedure as envisioned by the legislature.”

Arnold denied the motion to dismiss sentencing enhancements or special circumstances.

Despite the court’s denial, when the case resumed on Dec. 28, the prosecution asked for permission to “put specific language on the record,” according to the hearing transcript.

Then, Herring read from a script Gascón issued on Dec. 15 to deputy district attorneys, a portion of which states, “It is the position of this office that [these laws] are unconstitutional. … [They] provide no deterrent effect or public safety benefit of incapacitation—in fact, the opposite may be true, wasting critical financial state and local resources.”

After the reading, Arnold said, “This is something you’re reading. These are not your words.”

He proceeded to explain why sections of the script the prosecution read didn’t apply to Dominguez’s case.

Arnold asked if this reading represented a second attempt to dismiss enhancements, the prosecution said yes, and the court denied the motion for a second time.

“[The motion] does not rise, in any way, shape, or form, to the level of in the interest of justice,” Arnold said. “[Gascón’s] special directive has no legal authority. … It’s just their view.”

Alleged Backdoor Offer Dismissed

Arnold went on to say he was “puzzled” by the revelation from the previous hearing that an offer of seven years had been made.

At that point, Larry Droeger, head deputy of the Hardcore Gang Division, explained to the court that there’s a longstanding, ingrained protocol whenever official offers are obtained. He said that this protocol—which he clarified in detail—was apparently ignored in this case.

“There’s a reason why we follow that procedure,” Droeger said. “The reason is to ensure against improper influence or bias in the decision-making process. It’s also so that we have a uniform and fair application of our policies towards all similar situated defendants.

“If [Trujillo made an offer], I don’t know under what authority he did that.”

“It’s a good thing,” Arnold said, adding that such an offer should not exist given the circumstances. “Because there’s no way I could look at myself in the mirror and … live with a plea bargain of seven years on this case. … There’s no way I would have accepted that, based on my knowledge of this case.”

Conflict of Interest?

Sam Dordulian, who represented the surviving members of the Rojo family at the hearing, sought to have the DA’s office recused from the case due to a conflict of interest.

He pointed out that the seven-year offer—which, by Blackburn’s admission on Dec. 15, was facilitated by deputy public defender Tiffany Blackwell—represented a conflict of interest because Blackwell is part of Gascón’s transition team and a member of his policy committee.

“The whole purpose of the chain of command that the court just heard is to avoid the specific thing that happened in this case,” Dordulian said.

“[It’s] to avoid people like Mario Trujillo [going] through the back door [to] give a special offer to Ms. Blacknell, who was the public defender on this specific case, a sweetheart deal that just could not be justified by the facts of the case.”

The court maintained that so long as the seven-year offer was off the table, no conflict of interest existed. Therefore, Dordulian’s request was denied.

“[The] bottom line is they tried to get away quietly with a backdoor, unethical, and improper deal [with] Ms. Blacknell’s client and they got caught,” Dordulian told The Epoch Times via email.

“Thankfully it never materialized, but certainly not for a lack of trying on the part of Mario Trujillo, who was willing to let a gangbanger murderer walk the streets after one man was killed and another injured by a bullet after a few short years.

“This is the new face of justice in Los Angeles under George Gascón’s policies.”

The next hearing date is Jan. 27. The trial will commence within 60 days from that date.