When her client finally faces a jury in a criminal trial in SLO County Superior Court, defense attorney Melina Benninghoff hopes the opposing prosecutor won't be someone from the SLO District Attorney's Office.
For the second time since her client, former Grover Beach police officer Alex Geiger, was charged with manslaughter and other felonies in connection with a 2016 dog mauling that left one person dead and another injured, Benninghoff is asking a judge to hand the case's prosecution to the California Attorney General's Office.
"I just want my client to be treated fairly," Benninghoff said.
Geiger was charged after the police-trained Belgian Malinois, Neo, he privately owned escaped from his home and mauled 85-year-old Grover Beach resident Betty Long in December 2016. The dog injured Long and killed her neighbor, David Fear, when he attempted to intervene and stop the attack.
In court documents, Benninghoff alleged that the DA's Office intentionally tried to obstruct Geiger's defense by interfering with attempts to interview some witnesses in the case. The DA's Office denied that it intentionally meddled with the case, and wants to proceed with prosecuting Geiger.
According to Benninghoff, a private investigator she hired to help work on Geiger's case contacted officers in the Grover Beach Police Department and the Exeter Police Department—where Geiger worked prior to moving to the Central Coast—in an attempt to set up interviews. Speaking under oath at an Oct. 11 hearing, that investigator, Bryan Pinto, said he was told by both departments that the officers would need to ask permission from the SLO County DA's Office before they would submit to an interview. At the hearing, Benninghoff raised concerns that the DA's Office may have directed both departments to ask permission before submitting to such interviews, something it's not allowed to do.
"I am concerned that the District Attorney's Office is, for some reason, is thwarting my ability to conduct a defense," she said at the hearing.
At the same October hearing, SLO County Deputy District Attorney Stephen Wagner and the DA Office's own investigator, Michael Hoier, both denied issuing any such directive to officers in either department. In his sworn testimony, Hoier said that he was contacted separately by a sergeant with the Exeter Police Department and a Grover Beach police officer who told him they'd received a request for an interview by Geiger's defense. In both cases, Hoier said he told them that he couldn't give them any advice on whether to accept or decline an interview, and that the decision was up to them. Wagner said he later drafted an email to Grover Beach Police Chief John Peters stating that officers could request that interviews be recorded and that they could also bring their reports with them to interviews, but he didn't couch it as a directive.
"I did nothing in that email to suggest that we, as the DA's Office, are gatekeepers," he said.
As a precautionary measure, Judge Jacquelyn Duffy directed the DA's Office to draft a written notice to both departments advising them that they did not have to seek permission prior to being interviewed. On Oct. 12, SLO County Assistant District Attorney Eric Dobroth sent a memorandum to all of the county's law enforcement agencies, as well as other allied departments, stating that the office "cannot and will not" direct law enforcement or any other witnesses to accept or decline an interview by a defense counsel.
Benninghoff also accused the DA's Office of improperly trying to set parameters and conditions on a planned interview with two other witnesses from the county's Animal Services Division. As evidence, she pointed to a Sept. 17 email from Wagner in which he said that he arranged for the interviews to take place in the SLO County DA's Victim Witness office, and insisted that the defense's interview not only be recorded, but that Hoier be present as well.
"That's not OK," Benninghoff told New Times. "They don't have the authority to set conditions on how we can or can't interview witnesses."
During his testimony at the hearing, Hoier said he did discuss those interviews with Wagner, and admitted under questioning that the situation was "unusual."
Benninghoff characterized the DA's Office's behavior as an "underhanded scheme to gain an unjust advantage" in their case against Geiger. Speaking to New Times, Benninghoff said she believed that the alleged attempts to control the case were the result of SLO County DA Dan Dow bowing to pressure from attorneys representing Long and the Fear family. Both are currently suing Geiger in an ongoing civil lawsuit.
"The DA is prosecuting my client for political reasons rather than prosecuting something that was crime," she said. "We need an independent agency that doesn't take those kinds of inappropriate issues into consideration."
Dow did not respond to a request for comment on Benninghoff's remarks. As of Dec. 5, Judge Duffy had yet to rule on whether to order the DA's Office to recuse itself from the case. Δ
Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.