I-Team

Fatal boat crash: Conflict of interest?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007
, Chief Investigative Reporter
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Conflict at the courthouse as a man charged with manslaughter suggests that a Lake County judge may have a conflict of interest in his case.

The ABC7 News I-Team poses this question: Can someone from outside Lake County get a fair trial when the case involves one of the top law enforcement officials there? A man charged with manslaughter in a boat accident last year has his doubts.

The defendant has been saying since the crash that he's the victim of the "good 'ol boy" network and that local authorities are protecting one of their own. Now, he and his lawyer have concerns.

Bismarck Dinius still can't believe he's facing a felony manslaughter charge from a boat crash in April 2006.

"I worry about it a lot. Prison time is not something I want to have on the top of my mind," says Dinius.

He was steering his friend's sailboat after sunset on Clear Lake when a speedboat traveling a reported 40 to 50 miles an hour slammed into them, killing Lynn Thornton of Willows, the sailboat owner's fiance.

"She was an angel, an absolute angel," says Mark Weber, the victim's fiance.

Prosecutors didn't charge the speedboat driver, Chief Deputy Russell Perdock, the number two man in the Lake County Sheriff's Department.

They charged Bismarck Dinius in the death. He had been drinking and prosecutors claimed the sailboat's running lights were off, an accusation that's disputed by several witnesses. Dinius believes Lake County authorities are protecting one of their own.

"They're ridiculous, the charges against me are absolutely ridiculous," says Dinius.

"I just don't think that Lake County officials can be completely unbiased in this case. Perdock is such a high-ranking official, it's such a small, little county," says Victor Haltom.

The Dinius defense team stumbled upon an interesting fact in the court file for Russell Perdock's divorce this year.

All six judges in Lake County removed themselves from the case. Several called Perdock "a personal acquaintance" and they cited the California Code of Civil Procedure: "a person aware of the facts might reasonably entertain a doubt that the judge would be able to be impartial."

Dinius' lawyer wants to know, if the judges removed themselves from Perdock's divorce case, why didn't they remove themselves from the boat crash case, as well.

"Judges who've disqualified themselves in another case involving Perdock should not be participating in this case involving Perdock," says Haltom.

"It's not just can you be fair, it's can you avoid any appearance of impropriety," says former prosecutor and ABC7 legal analyst Dean Johnson. "It really has bad implications for the justice system in Lake County and I'm troubled by it. I think these judges could ethically remove themselves and remove part of the problem and do something towards restoring faith in the system."

When the Dinius defense filed a motion to disqualify the judges, one dropped out voluntarily, three others failed to answer -- effectively taking themselves out. The final two responded they were not biased and would not remove themselves from the case.

The judge now assigned to the case, Robert Crone, disclosed some details of his contact with Perdock at a hearing in August.

"I performed a marriage ceremony that involved he and his wife," says Lake County Superior Court Judge Robert Crone.

In his response to the defense motion, Judge Crone added that he would see Perdock at quarterly meetings on court security when the chief deputy testified in his courtroom and "in the courthouse or on the street and exchange brief greetings."

UC Hastings law professor, David Levine, says that's not enough to disqualify Crone or any of the other judges from the boat crash case.

"I think what these judges are saying is we can be fair and we don't want to impose this burden on a judge in another place," says Prof. Levine.

The issue went before a Napa Superior Court judge last month who denied the defense motion to remove Crone and another judge, saying only "there is no evidentiary basis in the record to support the conclusion that they are disqualified."

"Local judges have to be able to decide these cases and indeed they have their own duty to sit. It's not appropriate for these judges to step out of these cases too quickly," says Prof. Levine.

"There's simply no reason why these two judges couldn't recuse themselves. It's not going to cause a lot of expense or disruption. It's very easy to bring in a retired judge or visiting judge. It's done all the time," says Johnson.

In the meantime, Bismarck Dinius is preparing for all the possible scenarios, including incarceration. He's been watching prison documentaries.

"Lake County looks like they're wanting to prosecute this to the fullest extent and if I have to do prison time, I like to educate myself about what's going on in prison. This is a very scary situation," says Dinius.

Judge crone declined to be interviewed because of his continuing involvement in the case. The trial is still several months away and the defense is preparing, most recently by interviewing Perdock's soon to be ex-wife. She has a lot to say about Perdock's habit of driving his boats fast. You can read more about that in the I-Team blog.

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