Judge to decide if suit against Tom Sneddon goes to trial (July 30 2006)


Staff member
July 30, 2006

Judge to decide if suit against Tom Sneddon goes to trial

By Quintin Cushner/Senior Staff Writer

A judge is set to decide next month whether a $10 million federal lawsuit filed by a Solvang lawyer against Santa Barbara County prosecutors will go to trial.

Gary Dunlap's lawsuit accuses retiring District Attorney Tom Sneddon, District Attorney-elect Christie Stanley and Deputy District Attorney Jerry McBeth of violating his civil rights by wrongfully prosecuting him on charges of suborning perjury and witness tampering.

Dunlap is acting as his own attorney in the lawsuit, which is set for a pre-trial hearing Aug. 8 before U.S. District Court Judge Dickran Tevrizian in Los Angeles.

Tevrizian will likely have decided by then whether to dismiss the case or allow it to proceed to trial.

Sneddon, Stanley and other employees of the District Attorney's Office have declined comment on the specific allegations.

“We've been advised by the county lawyers not to discuss the case,” Stanley said. “But we're vigorously defending this and believe we've done nothing improper.”

Michael Allen, the county's attorney, said prosecutors were correct to charge Dunlap.

“There was a huge amount of evidence,” Allen said. “The standard in a criminal case is whether there is probable cause to prosecute.”

Dunlap maintains that prosecutors went to extraordinary and unconstitutional lengths to gather evidence against him.

“They've had a long-standing animosity toward me and a bad attitude about charging cases in general,” said Dunlap, who in June lost to Stanley in a bid to become district attorney.

A Santa Maria jury on June 4, 2003, acquitted Dunlap of six felony counts, including suborning perjury, witness intimidation, filing false documents and preparing false documents.

Dunlap pleaded no contest to misdemeanor marijuana possession and an infraction for possessing drug paraphernalia, two violations that surfaced when Dunlap's home and office were searched as part of the investigation.

The federal lawsuit may sort out whether the investigation and prosecution of Dunlap by the District Attorney's Office was unconstitutional, or simply unorthodox.

The complex tale stems from an August 2000 domestic-violence case in which Frank Campos was charged with beating his wife in front of a Lompoc apartment building. Campos hired Dunlap to represent him.

A teenager named Shauna Bennett witnessed the events and testified at pre-trial hearings against Campos. Before the Campos trial, the young woman, accompanied by her boyfriend's mother, Barbara Barajas, met with Dunlap at the attorney's office.

What occurred at that meeting remains in dispute.

Prosecutors have alleged in court documents that Dunlap threatened the young woman to make her testimony more flattering toward his client.

Dunlap claims in his lawsuit that Bennett and Barajas went to his office so that the teen could confess that, under pressure from prosecutors, she invented her testimony.

When the young woman later testified at trial, Bennett changed her statements. Despite this, Campos was convicted of domestic violence and sent to state prison.

After the trial, prosecutors began investigating Dunlap for allegedly threatening Bennett and coercing her into committing perjury.

The investigation took a twist March 17, 2002, when Barajas' son, Agustin Salas, was arrested on suspicion of aggravated drunken driving, being unlicensed and evading arrest.

Prosecutors allegedly told Barajas to hire Dunlap as an attorney for her son. Outfitted with a recording device, Barajas was to ask if Dunlap would take the case for free, as thanks for her work in allegedly helping the teen girl change her tune. When Dunlap set his fee at $1,000, prosecutors allegedly provided her the money.

Salas, who had no substantial defense, wanted to serve his sentence. Dunlap brokered a deal April 29, 2003, for Salas to serve 120 days for drunken driving and evading arrest.

Prosecutors were allegedly unhappy that their investigation of Dunlap had been cut short, and instructed Barajas to have her son's plea withdrawn.

The lawsuit claims prosecutors then had an improper conversation with Superior Court Judge Diana Hall, who presided over the Salas hearings, and revealed the ongoing investigation against Dunlap.

Eventually, the case against Salas was dismissed. The government later paid Barajas $11,000 and placed her into the federal witness protection program, in part for her work on the Dunlap case.

Quintin Cushner can be reached at 739-2217 or qcushner@ lompocrecord.com.