VALLEJO — A jury gave the Solano County District Attorney’s Office a sharp and quick rebuke Thursday with a not guilty verdict in a murder trial that has been the center of a controversy about how top prosecutors have handled and hid alleged problems with homicide autopsies.
The verdict may portend to problems in possibly dozens of past and pending homicide cases.
Michael A. Daniels, 62, faced a murder charge for the death of his girlfriend, Jessica Brastow, in a Vallejo motel room on the night of Aug. 8, 2012, after they both had spent the day drinking heavily. Daniels called 911, reporting that Brastow was passed out on the floor. When paramedics arrived, they found her lifeless and covered in vomit. They declared her dead about 20 minutes later.
Vallejo police decided Daniels had suffocated Brastow, probably after she had passed out since there was scant evidence of any sort of struggle or fight.
The belief that Daniels was a killer remained even after an autopsy by Dr. Susan Hogan for the Solano County Sheriff’s-Coroner’s Office. Hogan found nothing that proved murder. She told police and prosecutors that Brastow, whose blood-alcohol level at the time of death was 0.37 percent, could have choked on her own vomit or perhaps the alcohol suppressed her breathing.
“This trial has shown that officers and the District Attorney’s Office blind themselves and hide from you the truth,” Daniels’ defense attorney, Meenha Lee, told jurors before the verdict, labeling prosecutors’ actions biased and unethical. “This is a prosecuting agency that is supposed to uphold the law.”
Some jurors hugged Lee after the verdicts that rejected murder and even less-serious possible findings that included involuntary manslaughter.
Among the things Lee believes prosecutors were hiding was a then-secret 2013 investigation spurred by the District Attorney’s Office, in part by Hogan refusing to label Brastow’s death a homicide, that led to Hogan being fired just a few days after prosecutors renewed their effort to prosecute Daniels. Questions about the quality and credibility of Hogan’s work was also hidden until the judge in the Daniels case ordered hundreds of pages of documents about Hogan and the investigation be shared with defense attorneys.
For months after Brastow’s death Hogan, who has done more than 5,000 autopsies, resisted persistent and sometimes hostile efforts by police and prosecutors to change her mind. She held firm at Daniels’ trial, earlier this week responding to the prosecutor’s question about the likeliest cause of death by saying, “I don’t know.”
The prosecutor, Andrew Ganz, told jurors that Hogan did not have the bigger picture and that not calling Brastow’s death a homicide was “not the end all and be all” in his case.
The outcome of Daniels’ trial is the first and so far the most drastic example how the District Attorney’s Office’s handling of the Hogan controversy may affect pending homicide cases. Defense attorneys for the accused in the Genelle Conway-Allen case, the Vallejo Police Officer Jim Capoot killing, the Keith Osby murder and torture case, the Travis Dairy killing and many more cases were closely watching the Daniels case.
Reach Jess Sullivan at 427-6919 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jsullivandr.