"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: Armando Garcia was arrested a week ago in Mexico four years after the murder of Deputy David March of Saugus. Did you think this day would ever come?
Cooley: I thought it would come. I didn't know when, but I knew that there were lots of people working on it a lot of very skilled people who had not forgotten about that case and that suspect. I knew it would happen eventually.
Signal: What has taken so long?
Cooley: Well, first of all, you had certain legal issues that were interposed by the Mexican Supreme Court's decision in October 2001, essentially saying that they would not extradite if a person faces life in prison, with or without the possibility of parole. That had to be dealt with. Then you had just the logistics of tracking down a criminal and we believe he is very much a criminal in a foreign country where he had places to hide and people to hide him. We had to bring a lot of resources to bear, working with the Mexican authorities to make sure that they did their job and apprehended that murderer on their soil.
Signal: The situation with the Mexican Supreme Court changed a few months ago.
Cooley: It did. In late November, the Supreme Court of Mexico reversed its prior decision. In late November 2005 they ruled just the opposite of their previous ruling; they said, life in prison, with or without the possibility of parole, would not be a bar to extradition to a foreign country that wanted to impose that penalty.
That was a big step forward to secure our sovereign right to punish people under the laws passed by our constituents and residents and citizens.
Signal: To your knowledge, why did the Mexican Supreme Court reverse itself? It didn't just up and change its mind
Cooley: I don't think they just woke up one day and changed their collective mind. It was a 5-4 decision, so you had to change five minds, perhaps. But I think what happened was, over time, they realized, due to a lot of the public pressure put on this issue, particularly in the March case; a lot of exposure in the media all forms, television, radio, talk radio especially, in print; that this was a big issue for us, to have someone killed on our soil and then have sanctuary just because they were able to get to another country. So I think the issue had an impact. I think that included our Web site, escapingjustice.com, which focused on this case and some others.
Plus, the (U.S.) Congress woke up and passed sanctions bills in Congress last year, saying that certain foreign aid might be denied if a country refused to extradite under the terms of existing extradition treaties. I think somehow or another, that seeped in to the consciousness of some authorities, and they decided maybe (their) policy (was) without merit or (was) untenable. I am glad it did, because now we can go after the many, many murderers whom we know had fled the United States of America and have taken up sanctuary in Mexico.
One additional factor and I cannot believe that this is not a factor is the Mexican authorities realized their policy was really counterproductive. By harboring murderers in their country, they were essentially endangering their own people. I think that reality was brought home in some situations. I think that also became a factor in their mind.
Signal: Have you had any direct contact with any Mexican authorities who said they didn't want those people there?
Cooley: Yes, I have. I felt that the Mexican attorney general's representatives here in Los Angeles with whom I met on several occasions; the consul general here in Los Angeles, Ruben Beltran, with whom I met; and others I think they really, in their heart of hearts, felt this was a bad policy brought about by a bad decision. I think they were probably as happy as we were when their Supreme Court reversed that decision. I think that they realized how negative, counterproductive and counterintuitive that original policy from October 2001 was.
Signal: You will not be able to seek the death penalty if Armando Garcia is convicted.
Cooley: That is correct. And I will explain why.
According to the treaty which was negotiated in 1978 between Mexico and the United States and it became effective in 1980 either country has the right, according to the treaty, to deny extradition if the sought penalty is death. And that's just part of the treaty. We have to respect that law. In this case, we have to.
Now would I, if I had my druthers, prefer to have the death penalty available for Armando Garcia? Of course. I think in this case, the facts as known to me would justify the imposition of the death penalty. But we have to live within the law, and that's what the law dictates we must do. So we'll get him back here, hopefully sooner than later, and he'll be facing life without the possibility of parole in state prison if he is indeed convicted.
Signal: What is the procedure? What is there to guarantee Mexico that you won't get him back here and say, "Ha ha, we're going for death?"
Cooley: Everything you do in terms of extradition, you have to go through the Office of International Affairs within the State Department of our federal government. This is all governed by federal law and procedure.
If we were to seek a penalty that we did not agree to, then the federal government would be obligated to come in and sue us, probably in federal court, for violating the terms under which we were granted extradition. So we'd really be fighting against our federal government, because they're the official representative when it comes to these matters in dealing with a foreign government.
Signal: The Mexican Supreme Court opened this door for you in November. A lot of things must have happened really fast.
Cooley: Actually we were working let me assure you and your (readers) we were working on identifying and locating Armando Garcia even before this Supreme Court decision. That just cleared the way for us to get the maximum penalty under our law and under the terms of the federal extradition treaty.
Signal: People knew where he was, didn't they?
Cooley: There were various clues along the way. As a law enforcement professional I can't get into some of the investigative techniques or investigative strategies that took place in this case, because we have other cases out there. But I will tell you, the U.S. Marshals were working hard along the way. We had, I'll say, some near misses or near hits, as you may want to call it but we never gave up our commitment working with others, U.S. Marshals in particular, to get Armando Garcia.
Signal: At some point you must have sworn out an arrest warrant.
Cooley: Yes, we did.
Signal: When was that?
Cooley: That was in I think it was in November or October of å04. We did it under seal. That was because ordinarily you do it as a matter of public record; then it's out there, and if it got any media attention, we were concerned that his cohorts, maybe up here or elsewhere, would be aware of the emphasis we put on pursuing him.
We lifted that seal pursuant to a court order at 10 a.m. the day after he was apprehended and we were sure it was him, based upon fingerprint identification.
Signal: This is news to us. We hadn't heard about the arrest warrant before.
Cooley: Some of this is news. You're getting it. Breaking news.
Signal: So between October or November of 2004 and November 2005, when the Mexican Supreme Court changed its collective mind, what was going on during that year? Who was actively trying to effect the warrant?
Cooley: Primarily the Mexican authorities, working with the U.S. Marshals. The U.S. Marshals provided a lot of assistance (and) support, but the Mexican attorney general has a squad, I guess, or a group of individuals who are dedicated to apprehending foreign fugitives. They had made this a priority and had dedicated a lot of resources to it, to their great credit, and ultimately their work paid off.
It was the Mexican authorities standing alone, essentially, who personally apprehended Armando Garcia. They probably had some support and help and information from other authorities, including U.S. authorities, but the Mexican attorney general's people actually effected this arrest.
Now in another case we had ... we have this case involving Anabella Vara, whose estranged husband, Daniel Perez, had kidnapped her, shot her in the head, left her for dead. He was eventually apprehended and was on trial for that attempted murder. When her farther testified against him, Daniel Perez went down to Fontana and executed Anabella Vara's father, who had just testified that day. He fled to Mexico. We got that individual in custody one of our first targets, in early January and we did so because we have a Web site, escapingjustice.com, which detailed that story. Someone saw it on the Internet and saw Daniel Perez and called our office and said, "I know where Daniel Perez is."
That case there was the U.S. Marshals working with Mexican authorities who effected that arrest. Remember, in a foreign country, only a foreign police officer can actually make the arrest.
Signal: If Mexican authorities were looking for Armando Garcia and Daniel Perez prior to November 2005, what was the deal? If they can't extradite and you're not going to accept anything short of life in prison or the death penalty
Cooley: There had been some changes within which we were working. The (Mexican) Supreme Court had authorized extradition for potential life sentences in Ventura County and I believe in San Bernardino County. Essentially they would allow a provisional warrant to be issued, even if it allowed for life, if there were some X-number of years and a person could get parole.
So the trick became and this is the kind of legal twister you hate to engage in the trick became how to secure a life-term sentence where you knew the number of years would ensure that the person would die in prison.
Some lawyers went to work, with the permission of the family members, to secure that kind of an arrangement, and then we were able to upgrade it to the life without (parole) scenario as of late November. Under any circumstance, he was going to die in a California prison if convicted.
Signal: You once shared with us your concerns about California's double-jeopardy rule as it applies to foreign governments, where if a suspect is tried abroad for a crime committed here, he can't be tried here if he returns. Is there a chance that Mexico won't extradite Armando Garcia and they'll try him in Mexico?
Cooley: I don't believe there's any chance under the sun of that happening. Because having approved the provisional warrant, which they executed, they essentially agreed to the extradition. What may happen is, there may be some delay as due process unfolds in Mexico.
Double-jeopardy because of the work of my office and Jan Maurizi as you know, who is a leader in this area we convinced our state Legislature to modify California's double-jeopardy statute so an Article 4 prosecution, or a prosecution of similar jurisdiction, a prosecution leading to a conviction or an acquittal would not be a bar to our prosecution.
Signal: That has now happened.
Cooley: (Yes.) We worked on that probably about three years ago we got that legislative change passed. That was one salutary effect of this difficult situation. We looked at our laws, realized they were defective, inconsistent with our U.S. constitutional double-jeopardy provisions, and had our Legislature change the law.
Signal: So you are confident that Mexico will follow through and extradite Armando Garcia?
Cooley: I am confident. It may take some time.
Signal: How long? What happens now?
Cooley: What happens now is, we have 60 days from the date of arrest of the fugitive to file the appropriate paperwork through the (U.S.) Office of International Affairs with the authorities in Mexico to support the provisional arrest warrant that they have issued. That's when extradition proceedings will be initiated in a Mexican court of law.
Just like our courts of law, you can fight extradition, and you can appeal a court's ruling that commands extradition. Whether that's going to happen in this case or not, we don't know. And I've really been pretty good, along with some of my staff, (in) trying to lower expectations. It's not necessarily going to be in 61 days. It may be some time after that. To give you an exact date or time frame, or anyone else, would be speculative.
Signal: We could here talking about it another year from now.
Cooley: We could be, but let's hope not. I think they realize how important this case is to us, and I think that the level of cooperation that they've shown historically, leading up to the arrest, would indicate that they want to get this murderer out of their system and into ours.
Signal: What will you charge him with?
Cooley: Murder. As you probably realize, we don't charge the degree of murder in our charging document. We're going to charge him with the basic crime of murder, but with the special circumstance of killing a police officer in the performance of his duties, and in this case, killing a witness. Those are two special circumstances that allow us to seek life without the possibility of parole.
Remember, when he killed Deputy March, he was a wanted suspect for, I believe, two counts of attempted murder in Los Angeles County. Those charges are also on there. So those crimes will be additionally charged.
Signal: What do you mean, killing a witness?
Cooley: David March was performing his duties. He was a witness to whatever criminal activity Garcia was up to. And we believe that in addition to killing him just because he was a police officer, he was a witness to crime, and to avoid that, that's the reason Garcia killed him.
Signal: So David March was the witness. You don't mean he killed someone else, too.
Cooley: No, no.
Signal: You need to show there's a special circumstance to get the death penalty; do you also need a special circumstance to get life without parole?
Cooley: Yes. Absolutely. In order to invoke special-circumstance penalties, you have to establish in virtually all cases, the murder was a first-degree murder; that it was premeditated and deliberate. We feel that the facts support that in this case. Then you have the proceeding to establish the special circumstance, and if that's found to be true, then you go into the penalty phase.
In this case, death is not available to us, so a finding "true" as to any of the special circumstances would allow the court to impose the life-without-the-possibility-of-parole sentence.
Signal: How was this premeditated?
Cooley: Well, before, we were alleging right now everything is an allegation, and it will be proven in court in due course we're alleging that Garcia had, before the confrontation with Deputy March, he said if he ever had a confrontation with a police officer, he would kill the police officer. That's pretty good premeditation for us.
And then you of course will argue, as a prosecutor, the circumstances of the murder. In this case we believe it was an execution-type murder; that would also lend us to a finding that it was premeditated and deliberate.
Signal: How many people who are wanted for murder in Los Angeles County are free in Mexico?
Cooley: It's a rough estimate, and that will depend a lot on law enforcement sort of going through their files and identifying where they feel the person likely fled to Mexico because that's where the person was from, or that's where someone told us that's where he or she may have gone. Our figures have always been roughly 200 to 300 in Los Angeles County. It's kind of a rough number, a rough estimate, based upon anecdotal information, surveys we've conducted. But those are our rough numbers.
Now that we have cleared away the legal obstacles to bring these people back, I think you'll see law enforcement documenting those cases where they really think someone is in Mexico, furthering their fugitive investigation, working with us and others, particularly the U.S. Marshals, to apprehend the individuals in Mexico.
Signal: Do you see better cooperation today with Mexico than there was three or four years ago?
Cooley: Yes. It's been sort of a continuum up. I think that as of late November of 2005, I think we're back to where we were. And that is a great improvement over the last 3-1/2 years, where we really had this huge hurdle that we were trying to overcome to bring them back.
Signal: Without knowing whether the 2001 decision of the Mexican Supreme Court reflected the feelings of Mexican law enforcement officials at the time, was there actual resistance from Mexican authorities in 2002 after the murder of David March?
Cooley: My sense is that Mexico is burdened right now with a lot of criminality that is unacceptable to their people. They've got vicious narco gangs who are doing a lot of things down there that the Mexican people don't want them to do. I think there are certain outlaw areas that exist because of narcotic trafficking and the criminal element associated with that.
I think the Mexican people are not real pleased with the level of law enforcement, the amount of protection they're getting, and the fact that criminals are getting away with everything they are getting away with down there. I think there has a been a change that is reflected in some of their legislators upping the sentences for certain crimes, and protest against the government for not protecting them. I think they are waking up, too, and saying: We have to protect ourselves against this criminal element; we can't let them control us.
Hopefully that attitude, too, will be reflected in continuing law enforcement efforts by the Mexican authorities in terms of apprehending our fugitives and dealing with their own criminals.
Signal: How much impact does U.S. foreign policy have on their cooperation? Do they look at the plans for the wall at the border and say, "We're not going to cooperate?"
Cooley: I think the most important thing that happened was Congress passing the sanctions measures last year. I think that sent a powerful message.
I am not privy to the diplomatic activities of our federal government; hopefully they have been quietly or otherwise saying this is unacceptable. But I'll tell you, this is more of a trickle-up thing. I think the trickling up came from the rallies we had out here in memory of David March you know, the March for Justice rally ... in this community; lots of others speaking out in a rigorous, constant manner, including myself and people on my staff, other law enforcement officers, (Sheriff) Lee Baca; (Rep.) Buck McKeon carried a resolution in Congress; Dianne Feinstein stood up on this issue, particularly the David March issue, (in) the Senate. I think that constant drumbeat had an effect, perhaps on the executive branch on our government and perhaps on people in the Mexican government.
Signal: Apparently Armando Garcia had been arrested and deported and arrested and deported and
Cooley: I have heard he was arrested and deported twice; I've heard he was arrested and deported three times; I heard he was arrested and deported four times. I am going to go with the number 3 maybe because it's the average, but I have heard that number. And that quite frankly is unacceptable.
David March would be alive today if the U.S. Department of Justice would have prosecuted (Garcia) for illegal reentry. If you illegally reenter this country and you're deported and then you reenter the country, you could be prosecuted under federal law for a felony. To be very frank and very blunt, that's not being done in the Central District of California. There have not been enough resources dedicated to Homeland Security and (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services), now they call them, to really support those prosecutions. There have not been enough assets given to the U.S. Attorney's office in the Central District to pursue those prosecutions.
Maybe there's not enough money being spent on federal prisons to house those individuals who feloniously reenter. But other districts are doing a lot better job of prosecuting people for felonious reentry, and I think that is the kind of deterrence we need, and that's kind of if that would have been done in this case, David March would be alive. Armando Garcia wouldn't be a murderer. He would be a federal prisoner.
So if there is any lesson to be learned, it's: Let's enforce those kinds of laws and protect our citizens from those who flagrantly violate our immigration laws. Come once, OK fine, you're deported. Come back, you're going to be federally prosecuted and imprisoned.
Signal: With so many people crossing the border every day of the week, is it realistic to think there's enough money to do that?
Cooley: I think from the standpoint of (widow) Teri March, (parents) John March and Barbara March, and probably David March, it would be money well spent.
Signal: Not that it's a factor in the David March case, but a federal judge has ruled that a doctor, nurse or paramedic has to administer a lethal injection in California, so effectively we don't have the death penalty anymore.
Cooley: Hopefully it's a temporary situation.
Signal: Are you involved in trying to change that?
Cooley: No. That case was a brutal rape-murder committed in San Joaquin County, as I understand it, and then because of a change of venue, prosecuted in Ventura County. So our office has no involvement. The only involvement we might have, and it's probably unnecessary, is to file a "friend of the court" brief if there is a appeal after the hearings that will be conducted in a couple of months. We'll have to wait and see.
Signal: Attorney General Bill Lockyer has placed a moratorium on executions until the federal court rules in May or whenever?
Cooley: Right. I think he is operating under sort of that prohibition temporarily. He and the attorney general's office are very capable of litigating death penalty issues, and I am sure they will represent the people well in a few months. I can only suggest that my experience is, then there will be a appeal.
Signal: Is it hanging up any of your cases?
Cooley: It could potentially hang up some of our cases, and that's what my concern is. We have a couple out there that we know are cued up. But they're downstream enough that maybe this issue will be resolved, so our anticipated executions won't be delayed unnecessarily.
Signal: Give us some final words about David March.
Cooley: I think he was a hero. He was certainly a son of Santa Clarita and gave his life doing a job, wearing a uniform, and he was killed for that reason and that reason only.
The only regret I have is that we will not be able to implement the death penalty. But seeing the joy on Teri March's face (and) John and Barbara March after we apprehended Armando Garcia relives me of that one concern I have of not getting the deal penalty for Armando Garcia.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.