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Despite DA’s racially charged comments, life sentence of Newport Beach double-murderer is upheld

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An appeals court has upheld the life sentence of a Black man convicted in a brutal Newport Beach double-slaying, ruling that prosecutors were right not to pursue the death penalty in the midst of allegations by the defense and others that racially charged comments by DA Todd Spitzer violated the state’s recently enacted Racial Justice Act.

While Spitzer adamantly denied violating the Racial Justice Act, a state appeals court judge wrote that the DA’s “actions suggest he actually understood his transgression” related to the capital murder case of Jamon Buggs, who was sentenced in 2022 to life without the possibility of parole for the April 1, 2019 killings of 38-year-old Darren Partch and 48-year-old Wendi Miller.

“Despite Spitzer’s reluctance to acknowledge his expressed racial bias, he took steps to remedy the harm to Buggs’s case and to the integrity of the prosecution,” Presiding Justice Kathleen E. O’Leary wrote. “The trial court clearly understood Spitzer took the steps necessary to prevent racism from infecting the criminal proceedings and nothing further was required under the statute. Based on the unique facts of this case, the trial court did not err by concluding the appropriate remedy was that Buggs was no longer subject to the death penalty.”

DA Spokeswoman Kimberly Edds said the office “will let the (appellate) opinion stand for itself,” declining to comment further.

The comments by Spitzer made during internal DA deliberations over whether to pursue the death penalty for Buggs ignited a controversy when they surfaced in 2022. According to internal DA memos, Spitzer asked about the race of Buggs’ former girlfriends and told his senior management that he “knows many Black people who enhance their status by only dating ‘White women.’ ” The DA later said he was trying to determine the racial overtones of the case and described “allegations of any racial animus” as “baseless and quite frankly offensive.”

Buggs wrongly believed that Partch, an ex-minor-league hockey player, was in a relationship with Buggs’ estranged girlfriend. Miller had no ties to Buggs and had only met Partch hours before her killing.

Armed with a .38 caliber revolver, Buggs burst into Partch’s Newport Beach condo while Partch and Miller were having sex and shot and killed them both. During his trial, Buggs’ attorney told jurors that Buggs mistook Miller for his ex-girlfriend. Both Miller and the ex-girlfriend were White.

Buggs was arrested several days later, while trying to track down and kill another man who was actually in a relationship with his ex-girlfriend. Another resident saw Buggs scaling the Irvine apartment complex where Buggs apparently believed that man lived and called police, leading to a police pursuit that ended with Buggs’ arrest.

Officers following the chase recovered a gun they tied to the Newport Beach killings.

Despite Spitzer’s repeated denials that he violated the Racial Justice Act, the DA assigned the case to a new prosecutor and everyone who was in the meeting where the comments took place were “walled off” from the trial.

During Buggs’ sentencing hearing, prosecutors argued that “no adverse action” was taken against Buggs because of his race, particularly since Spitzer had opted not to pursue the death penalty. Defense attorneys disagreed, with one of them arguing that Spitzer’s comments were an example of “the oldest bias that exists.”

Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregg L. Prickett, who presided over Buggs’ trial, found that Spitzer violated the Racial Justice Act but agreed that the appropriate legal remedy was taking the death penalty off the table. Prickett added that given the facts of the killings it wasn’t in the interest of justice to reduce the charges of which Buggs was convicted.

The appellate judges wrote that the intent of the Racial Justice Act is to “eliminate racial bias from California’s justice system,” adding that it would be “counterproductive to fail to acknowledge remedial actions taken by a district attorney, prior to any intervention by the court, to eliminate any aspect of racial bias arising from the prosecution” rather than “wait to see what the court may do.”

“We want to encourage the prosecution to avoid instances of racial bias and when discovered to immediately and appropriately address the issue,” O’Leary wrote. “But for the somewhat unusual revelation of internal OCDA correspondence and Spitzer’s actions, this conversation may never have come to the trial court’s attention.”

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