VALLEJO — Nearly two months after the controversy about the Solano County Sheriff-Coroner’s Office surfaced, top officials in that office and the District Attorney’s Office took the witness stand Tuesday to answer questions about events that could affect dozens of murder cases.
Defense attorneys for Michael Daniels are seeking to have a murder charge he faces thrown out, claiming prosecutors engaged in “outrageous conduct” by hiding evidence about a secret investigation and firing of Dr. Susan Hogan, who performed scores of homicide autopsies in Solano County between 2008 and 2013.
The chain of events that spurred the investigation began with District Attorney Donald A. du Bain asking Sheriff Thomas Ferrara to come over to his office for a meeting about recent complaints du Bain had received from his prosecutors about the autopsies done by Hogan, according to Ferrara, who was the first witness at the hearing ordered by Judge Daniel Healy.
Ferrara, two months into his new job at the time, met at du Bain’s office with du Bain’s and his three chief deputies in February 2013. The prosecutors complained about four autopsies, all four with findings by Hogan that weakened pending murder cases.
Du Bain has declined to talk about the Hogan controversy.
After du Bain’s meeting, Ferrara launched the secret investigation that led to Hogan’s firing eight months later, in October 2013.
In spite of concerns serious enough to warrant the investigation, Hogan kept conducting autopsies and defense attorneys in dozens of homicide cases remained unaware that there were major problems in the coroner’s office.
Instead of having a third-party attorney conduct the investigation, a choice Healy has repeatedly pointed out would have led the investigation and more than 1,000 pages of documents to be deemed confidential because of attorney-client privilege, Ferrara made a different decision.
Ferrara hired a longtime comrade, a recently retired captain from the office, Ken Elliott, whose investigation revolved largely around the four detrimental autopsies. Elliott never talked with Hogan – not about the four autopsies or any of the 151 other homicide autopsies or the other roughly 1,300 autopsies she conducted.
The investigation ended in July 2013.
Ferrara’s second-in-command, Undersheriff Gary T. Elliot Jr. testified that on Oct. 7, 2013, he handed Hogan two letters he had written. The first letter said her services were no longer needed, that she was being fired, her firing was not subject to appeal and that she was about to be escorted out of the building. The second letter said she was being allowed to resign on Nov. 30 but that she was still being escorted out of the building immediately.
He let her choose which letter she wanted. A week later, she was briefly allowed back into the Sheriff’s Office under escort to retrieve her personal things.
Hogan also took the witness stand Tuesday.
Much of her testimony focused on a Jan. 10, 2013, meeting – a few weeks before du Bain’s meeting with Ferrara. The meeting included the three top prosecutors and two Vallejo police officers and revolved around the death of Jessica Brastow, a woman police found dead in a Vallejo motel five months earlier.
Michael Daniels, the man set to start a murder trial next week for Brastow’s death, sat quietly throughout the day’s testimony.
Hogan testified that during the meeting, one of the officers was “very angry” about her not ruling the death a homicide and one of the prosecutors kept glaring at her. She has credited that prosecutor with fueling her firing.
Defense attorneys for Daniels believe Hogan was strong-armed into changing her cause of death in Daniels’ case. At a 2013 probable cause hearing for Daniels, she testified the cause of death was “probably” homicide. She also testified that she had not been fired and was going to be retiring in December 2013.
Hogan testified Tuesday that autopsy reports could take months because of a lack of staff support for transcribing and that a training program launched by her superiors was troubling because it meant “having a bunch of 18-year-olds in the morgue during homicide autopsies.” Hogan also said her autopsy reports always included pages of handwritten diagrams.
That was news to several defense attorneys at the hearing, who said they have never been provided copies of diagrams in their homicide cases.
One of the final witnesses to testify Tuesday was Chief Deputy District Attorney Terry Ray. It was an email to Ray from Hogan sent in February 2013 that brought to a head the concerns about Hogan’s performance and credibility. The email was about Hogan’s autopsy on 13-year-old Genelle R. Conway-Allen. Hogan told Ray in the email, “just between you and me,” before sharing with Ray her opinion that the girl may have died accidentally during consensual sex.
Anthony L. Jones, the suspect in Conway-Allen’s killing, faces rape and murder charges. He has pleaded not guilty.
Ray answered several questions about why it took her more than seven months to share the email with defense attorneys and why she never talked to other prosecutors in her office about the Hogan investigation. She explained she had been ordered by a superior to keep word of the investigation confidential. Ray said she only learned a few days ago about du Bain’s meeting with Ferrara, which spurred the Hogan investigation.
Another of du Bain’s chief deputies and one or two top prosecutors are expected to take the witness stand when the hearing resumes Wednesday.
Reach Jess Sullivan at 427-6919 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jsullivandr.