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The Pelfini Murder Trial:
The Case That Toppled the District Attorney?

To hear the KPFA Flashpoints interview with Purple Beret Tanya Brannan on the Pelfini debacle, click here.

Amid explosive revelations of law enforcement miscon- duct and incompetence, the Louis Pelfini domestic violence homicide trial ended last month with a dis- missal of all charges in the November, 1999 slaying of Janet Pelfini.

Visualize JusticeThe case fell apart when videotaped evidence came to light of misconduct by Deputy District Attorney Brooke Halsey, including coached and perjured testimony by the prosecution's star witness. Because of double jeopardy, charges can never again be lodged against Louis Pelfini for criminal conduct in the death of his wife.

While the aborted trial puts an end to any possibility of justice for Janet Pelfini, her death may have far-reaching positive effects for other victims of domestic violence in Sonoma County. The scandalous, possibly criminal misconduct revealed will likely put an end to the career of Deputy District Attorney Brooke Halsey (whose handling of domestic violence cases has sparked a raft of complaints by local victim advocates) and may well bring down DA Mike Mullins and not a moment too soon.

Not Suicide by Bucket or Any Other Means
On November 7, 1999, Louis Pelfini, a rich, white Petaluma doctor, called 911 to report his wife had committed suicide by putting her head in a bucket of water. When sheriff's deputies Rod McMasters and Ray Basurto arrived they found Janet Pelfini sprawled outside her home with numerous injuries to her face, head, arms and ankle. Near the body was a plastic bucket with about an inch of water in the bottom, its sides dry and moss-covered. There was no water on Janet Pelfini's head or upper body.

In just a matter of minutes, Deputies McMasters and Basurto, both rookies with only six months on the force, ruled out the claim of suicide and called in their sergeant. Sgt. Satterwhite arrived, agreed it was a suspicious death and called in the Violent Crimes Investigation unit (VCI).

VCI Det. Richard York testified that even before arriving on the scene he was aware of Pelfini's reputation as a "respected member of the community." That fact colored his decision-making that night at the scene.

Besides Janet Pelfini's injuries, suspicions were also raised by her husband's multiple and conflicting statements at the scene. First he said that it was suicide, then that Janet had died of natural causes; first that he'd found the body on all fours with her head in the bucket, later that he wasn't sure of the position of the body; first that he'd administered CPR for ten minutes, then that he hadn't performed CPR at all. Despite these obvious red flags, York did not declare it a crime scene; therefore no forensic evidence was collected.

Six weeks later the coroner declared the death a homicide by suffocation. The delay meant the evidence from the bucket, Janet and Louis Pelfini's clothing, fingernail scrapings that would have indicated a physical struggle, photographs of the injury noted on Louis Pelfini's hand all evidence that could have proven the guilt or innocence of Louis Pelfini was lost forever. This failure was to haunt the case for the duration.

On December 20, 2000, more than a year after Janet's death, Louis Pelfini was indicted by the Grand Jury and charged with murder, voluntary manslaughter and domestic violence. After less than 3 days in jail, Pelfini posted the $750,000 bail within hours and returned to his medical practice pending trial.

A Trial of Tribulations
A week into the trial, the county's forensic pathologist Dr. Thomas Gill took the stand. With no physical evidence from the crime scene, the prosecution's entire case rested on Gill's determination that Janet Pelfini had been murdered.

Defense attorney Chris Andrian had leaked to the press five months before that Gill's credibility was to be the corner-stone of his defense, with revelations of Gill's history of alcoholism, his dismissal from the Indianapolis coroner's office, and suspension of his medical license. Clearly this was to be Sonoma County's own O.J. Simpson trial, with the defense's strategy to attack the investigation rather than to proffer evidence of Pelfini's innocence.

Dr. Gill detailed why Janet Pelfini's injuries could not have resulted from a fall and why he had unequivocally ruled out acute asthma attack as the cause of death (the latest defense theory on the case). The suicide by drowning theory was also debunked there was no water in Janet's lungs. Finally, attributing the injuries around Janet Pelfini's mouth to someone holding something over her mouth and exerting enough pressure to cause bruising inside and out, Gill detailed how he had concluded that she had been smothered to death.

Sandbagged Discovery
At this point, a report in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat revealed that the sheriff's department had hired a speech pathologist to work with Gill in preparation for his testimony, purportedly to help him present information more clearly and to deal with questions about his past. It soon came out that there were videotapes of these sessions tapes that likely should have been shared with the defense under the rules of discovery.

Thus began a battle for the tapes

A day or two later, DDA Brooke Halsey presented the court with a backpack filled with some 24 hours of videotapes, two cassette recordings and a pile of documents, telling the judge, "I was as surprised as you were, Your Honor, to learn of the existence of these tapes," and assuring that Gill had not been coached on the specifics of the Pelfini case.

Judge Daum then sent the jury on sabbatical, faced with the daunting task of reviewing the newly discovered evidence to determine if it should be turned over to the defense. By the next day, the contents of those videotapes had completely overshadowed the homicide trial, and Janet Pelfini became collateral damage in what defense attorney Andrian dubbed "the most contemptible, absurd and despicable prosecutorial act I have seen in 30 years of practice."

On December 17th, Chris Andrian called for an immediate dismissal of all charges against Louis Pelfini based on prosecutorial misconduct and discovery violations as revealed by the videotapes. Daum ordered an emergency evidentiary hearing, angrily demanding to know how the tapes originated, who knew about them and when they knew it. With DDA Brooke Halsey now in the hotseat, Greg Jacobs and Larry Scofus, second and third in command in the DA's office, took over for the prosecution ... and they didn't look happy.

Conspiracy to Commit Perjury By the end of the first afternoon's testimony on the tapes it was clear that what was unfolding was nothing short of a conspiracy to cook Dr. Gill's expert testimony in the Pelfini case. Involved in the conspiracy were Dr. Gill, Assistant Sheriff Gary Zanolini and sheriff's Detective Roy Gourley, DDA Brooke Halsey and speech pathologist Jeffrey Harris.

Harris testified he was hired by Asst. Sheriff Zanolini to conduct 90-minute "training sessions" with Dr. Gill once or twice a week from June to November. Throughout this period, he and Gill met regularly with Brooke Halsey and Detective Gourley; Gourley in fact was present at a number of the videotaped sessions. Harris testified that the questions Gill was coached on ranged from his background to his testimony in other cases to specific questions about the autopsy he had conducted on Janet Pelfini!

While Harris did his best to protect prosecutor Halsey, answering "I don't recall" to questions that would directly implicate him in the conspiracy, Halsey's complicity was so obvious that everyone in the packed courtroom was salivating at the prospect of his taking the stand the next morning.

In the hallway after Harris' testimony, defense attorney Andrian held court for the press, detailing bits of what was on the tapes he'd reviewed thus far and promising to show excerpts in the next day's hearing.

Andrian stated the tapes showed Gill crafting and changing answers to specific questions on the Pelfini autopsy, a subject supposedly off-limits in those sessions. Equally damning, one of the tapes showed Gill being questioned when a door opened off camera. Someone said, "Hi, Brooke, have a seat," and the questioning went on from there. (So much for "I was as surprised as you were, Your Honor ...!") "Your Honor, I'd like to make a statement of admissions." Deputy DA Brooke Halsey

"Your Honor, I'd like to make a statement of admissions."
Deputy DA Brooke Halsey

The next morning the courtroom bustled with anticipation as the crowd of defense attorneys, prosecutors, law clerks and a plethora of other courthouse-types waited for the show to begin, anticipating Halsey taking the stand before the day was over. But before the first witness could be called, prosecutor Brooke Halsey said, "Your Honor, I'd like to make a statement of admissions."

While still denying he had known about the existence of the tapes or that Gill and Harris had been rehearsing questions specific to the Pelfini case, Halsey admitted the tapes showed "crafting answers, tailoring testimony, time-frames, locations of injuries and innumerable facts that would come up in this trial." As a result of the irreparable harm the tapes did to Dr. Gill's credibility, Halsey asked the court to dismiss the case.

And with that, the trial of Louis Pelfini came to an unexpected end.

What Brooke Halsey Knew
Halsey's statements to the judge aside, here's what we know via the videotapes, testimony by Gill or Harris, or Halsey's own admissions about his involvement in Dr. Gill's perjured testimony. (NOTE: Details on the contents of the videotapes come from the defense attorney or from Halsey's own comments at the trial.)

  • Halsey was present in at least one of the videotaped sessions; it was even stated in the tape of the previous session that Halsey would be present at the next one.
  • While Halsey told the judge he was shocked to learn that details of the Pelfini autopsy were discussed in Gill's sessions with the speech pathologist Jeffrey Harris, by his own admission Halsey allowed Harris to be present in his own discussions with Gill going over specifics of the Pelfini case in preparation for trial.
  • In one videotaped session, Gill was asked about the reason for his medical license being revoked. Gill responded that Brooke [Halsey] had told him to say it was due to a clerical error. That's exactly how he testified on the stand.
  • All sessions with Harris were conducted in preparation for a "mock trial" (a kind of dress rehearsal for the trial) that Halsey participated in. According to the defense, all the questions asked in the mock trial were in Jeffrey Harris' notes. His notes were also replete with notations like "meet with Brooke" or "met with Brooke." Obviously the two were in frequent contact over a period of months.
  • In one of the videotapes Gill stated, "These are some answers Brooke Halsey told me to memorize."
  • Regardless of Halsey's direct involvement in the videotapes, he had an affirmative obligation to know what was going on with his star witness's testimony, as anything done to taint Gill would destroy his case. If we're foolish enough to believe Halsey was not involved directly in the misconduct, the fact of his incompetence in allowing this to happen is inescapable.

Yet Another Sheriff's Office Scandal
And there's no doubt the Sheriff's department (SO) is involved up to its eyeballs. Sheriff Jim Piccinini admits they did no background check on Gill before hiring him, despite the fact that background checks are mandatory. It was the SO that hired the speech pathologist to work with Gill, and Sheriff's Det. Roy Gourley known to be one of the SO's "dirty tricksters" was directly involved in the videotaped sessions by his own admission. Some of the sessions even took place in his office. Also, Gourley had the responsibility to keep Halsey up on what was going on in those sessions. To think that he didn't do so is ridiculous.

While Sheriff Piccinini is now taking credit for firing Dr. Gill as soon as the shit hit the fan, he doesn't explain why Gill wasn't fired as soon as they knew of his problems which, by various accounts was at least six months and perhaps a year earlier.

But instead of getting rid of Gill, Piccinini decided to cover up for him coach him on how to get around his embarrassing background and medical incompetence on the stand thus insuring another six to twelve months of bogus autopsies that now will surely be thrown out. Who knows how many murders will go unprosecuted due to the impossibility of putting Thomas Gill on the stand after the Pelfini disaster? (Unconfirmed reports estimate the number to be between 15 and 25.) "Brooke Halsey upheld the highest ethical standards of this office." District Attorney Mike Mullins "Precisely the problem! Purple Beret Tanya Brannan

Mike Mullins "Knew or Should Have Known"
As soon as charges were dismissed against Louis Pelfini, I dropped in to District Attorney Mike Mullins' office for some answers. Mullins, stone-faced and angry, grudgingly ushered me into his office.

When I asked what he intended to do in the wake of the dismissal, Mike said, "Brooke Halsey did nothing wrong." I then asked if he had watched all 24 hours of videotape. He replied that his staff had watched them and reiterated, "Brooke Halsey did nothing wrong."

After a few more questions, it became clear that no one had watched all the tapes, so I gave Mike the chance to correct his statement. "So did you mean to say that until your staff has seen all the evidence you won't be deciding whether or not to open an investigation?" I queried. "There will be no investigation," was Mullins' immediate response. "Brooke Halsey has upheld the highest ethical standards of this office." Precisely the problem!

Mullins and his command staff had been huddling for days since the existence of the videotapes went public. There's no question he had direct knowledge of Brooke Halsey's involvement by then, even if he hadn't orchestrate it. Any way you look at it, Mullins' response to this debacle his refusal even to investigate is nothing short of obstruction of justice. Mike's decision to "stand by his man" can only have one just result: that Mullins go down with Halsey.

"Brooke Halsey upheld the highest ethical standards
of this office."

District Attorney Mike Mullins

"Precisely the problem!"
Purple Beret Tanya Brannan


Criminal Justice System Exposed!
To anyone even slightly familiar with the criminal justice system, the idea that law enforcement lies comes as no surprise. The only thing that differentiates the Pelfini case from countless others is that they got caught conspiring to commit perjury on videotape!

ABUSE!Just as the videotaped beating of Rodney King made the reality of police brutality undeniable, the videotaped perjury of county pathologist Thomas Gill in the Pelfini murder case makes the reality of expert witness testimony crafted to fit law enforcement's needs incontrovertible.

Attorney General Investigation As we go to press, District Attorney Mullins and Sheriff Piccinini have called for a California Attorney General investigation into the allegations of perjury and misconduct in the case. But read carefully between the lines:

First, the Attorney General's office was involved! They took part at least in questioning Gill in the videotaped mock trial. At this point, the only untainted entity capable of conducting an independent investigation would be a special prosecutor.

And according to the Press Democrat's report, the Attorney General is only being asked to look into Sheriff's Dept. misconduct and charges of perjury on the part of Dr. Gill, with no mention of Brooke Halsey's involvement. But the truth is Halsey's conduct is much more egregious and unethical than Gill's. He shouldn't be let off the hook.

In addition, we remember well the Attorney General investigation at the time of the Teresa Macias domestic violence homicide. In that case, then-Sheriff Ihde repeatedly lied to the public, saying the Attorney General would be investigating the handling of the Macias case, when in fact they'd only been asked to investigate law enforcement protocols and practices. Even after we proved this with documents from the Attorney General himself, Ihde continued to lie and misrepresent the scope of the investigation to the public.

Nor can we forget Sheriff Piccinini's state Board of Corrections' investigation into the jail deaths. After using the investigation to deflect embarrassing questions about the jail for months, the Sheriff then failed to release the report when it was completed until, that is, four Purple Berets were arrested in protest.

In general these investigations are used by law enforcement to calm the public demands for accountability in hopes that, by the time the report of the investigation comes out, people will have forgotten what it was all about.

It's our job to make sure the public has a long memory.


January 24, 2002

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