DDA suspended

After causing a possibly innocent man to spend a year in jail and receive the scare of his lifetime, Deputy District Attorney Leo Barone was placed on administrative leave this week for allegedly withholding crucial evidence in the trial of a man accused of molesting and sharing pornography with his young nieces.

Barone, a Butte County deputy D.A. in Butte County for close to five years, was suspended with pay by District Attorney Mike Ramsey pending an investigation into his conduct after Ramsey received indications that Barone seriously breached his professional ethics when he successfully prosecuted Daniel Grant Pickett for lewd conduct with a minor and exposing a minor to harmful material.

Pickett’s lawyer, Chico attorney Jodea Foster, said Barone both ignored and failed to share with defense attorneys that the father of one of the prosecution’s main witnesses—a 9-year-old-girl who claimed Pickett had inappropriately touched her when she was five—had told Barone the girl was unreliable and had made false accusations in the past.

“She had these very vague stories that he touched her,” Foster said of the girl. “She never could describe to a jury what he’d done.”

Foster said the girl’s father, a deputy sheriff from Nevada, called Barone to tell him that his daughter “lacks credibility” and “makes a lot of wild accusations.” The father’s observations were apparently based on unfounded accusations the girl made during custody hearings between the father and her mother.

Barone has reportedly denied receiving the father’s call, which Foster said he first learned of from the girl’s family and later confirmed through his own investigation.

Foster said Barone also failed to share with the court that a pornographic photo Pickett was accused of showing to one of the girls was one that the girl told investigators she had never seen before. According to court records, Barone, in searching through the defendant’s computer hard drive, found the only photograph that somewhat matched the description of a picture Pickett’s niece initially claimed to have been shown by Pickett. But after Pickett was convicted, Foster said, The D.A.'s office told him the girl had denied ever seeing that particular photo.

The prosecutor’s missteps led D.A. Ramsey to go before the court and ask that the case be dismissed and the guilty verdicts thrown out.

“[Barone] violated one of the basic tenets of prosecution—you don’t go for a win, you go for justice,” Ramsey said. “Our system is based on a fair trial and this was not a fair trial.”

Ramsey said his office is looking through Barone’s cases to make sure there have been no ethical failures on his part in the past.

“There will be discipline, there’s no doubt about that,” Ramsey said. The form of that discipline will be based on the findings of the investigation and could range from firing to demotion to reprimand. Ramsey asserted that the incident was a one-time lapse in judgment on the part of a single prosecutor and does not represent wider ethical problems in the D.A.'s Office.

“We have a very high ethical standard in this office,” he said. “I don’t care about looking bad, I’m interested in doing the right thing.”

Still, Ramsey said he personally believes, based on the evidence he saw, that Pickett did show the girl a pornographic photo. At this point, however, it would be considered double jeopardy to try him again.

A number of local defense attorneys noted with some irony that Barone, at Ramsey’s request, had prosecuted Chico attorney Grady Davis for contempt of court four years ago because of Davis’s aggressive behavior toward a witness in a case he was defending. Davis was suspended from the California bar association for three years and placed on five years’ probation, partly as a result of that conviction. The judge in that contempt case was Thomas Kelly, the same judge who presided in Pickett’s trial.