John Burts appeared in Riverside County court in late September on charges of assaulting his child’s mother.
Prosecutors wanted him to serve six months in prison. But under a plea bargain, Burtz struck out with a Superior Court judge that the charges would be reduced to misconduct if Burtz completed a 52-week program for the Batters.
What happened next was that the agreement avoided public notice.
In December, less than three months later, Burts, 30, of Indio, was re-arrested this time on charges of torturing and killing his 7-month-old son, Kiri.
“If the court had decided to keep him in custody for 180 days as per the request of the people, the murder of the defendant’s child could have been stopped,” said Deputy Collector Dr. AT. Barrett von Esch wrote in a sentencing memorandum for the issue of domestic violence.
This kind of language – which seems to blame the judge for the frightening outcome – is extraordinarily rare from prosecutors. The question comes down to the judge, Burke Stransky, who is challenging Von Esch’s boss for the job of Riverside County District Attorney in the June 7 election.
Stransky says there is a real motive for the memo, and he has filed a lawyer-abuse complaint in the California State Bar, condemning the prosecutor’s remarks as inaccurate, inappropriate and politically motivated.
Stransky insisted there was no legal basis for detaining Burts on the day of the petition. The district attorney’s office called the Burts case “politically motivated” for political gain, accusing it of being responsible for the death of an infant in a murder case, Strunsky wrote.
Riverside County District. AT. Mike Hestrin declined to comment directly on the Burts case. He is running for a third term as a law and order candidate whose office handles 50,000 to 60,000 criminal cases a year in the vast county that stretches across the Arizona border.
He referred to the Los Angeles County District Attorney as saying that Stransky, if elected, would be a progressive prosecutor “on the model of George Gascon.”
Strunsky description controversy. He described himself as a pragmatist and a moderate, and said the sentence memo was an example of an attempt by a district attorney to treat a crime as lenient.
“It’s a way to get voters to say I’m a weak liberal judge,” he said. “It is misusing the authority of the office.”
Prior to becoming a judge, Strunsky was a deputy district attorney for 15 years whose successful murder charges were featured on “Dateline” and “20/20”. His campaign is backed by Governor Gavin News, who may or may not help the county recalling the governor last year.
The fight between Hestrin’s deputies and Stransky has drawn attention to the race.
On the morning of January 23, 2020, Riverside County representatives arrived at the apartment of Haley Knighton, the 26-year-old mother of Burt’s young daughter, in the unorganized Bermuda Dunes.
Knighton told deputies that during the argument, Burts hit him on the wall and grabbed him by the neck, squeezing his neck for about a minute until his eyesight began to darken, according to the arrest warrant. He said his 2-year-old daughter was an eyewitness to the incident.
Knighton refused to go to the hospital and refused to press charges. After Burts was charged with aggravated domestic violence and ordered not to contact, she successfully modified it to prevent negative contact. She gave birth to Burts’ son, Kiri, and she continued to look after him.
The charges of heinous domestic violence had a maximum term of five years, and on September 27, lawyers for both sides met with Stransky to discuss how to resolve it.
Prosecutors wanted Burts to be detained for 180 days. This was Burt’s second domestic violence case, alleging strangulation. In a previous case, from July 2018, another girlfriend told police that Burts had violently strangled her during a fight in a car.
The district attorney’s office filed a 2018 lawsuit alleging domestic battery abuse and allowed him to plead guilty to a lesser charge of breach of the peace that is specified in the California Penal Code as “415”.
Stransky said prosecutors did not say he was involved in the 2018 allegations of strangulation.
“It would have been such a red flag, but they never mentioned it,” Stransky said. “If it was strangled, why did they request 415? It’s literally a fee you charge your neighbor for playing music at night.”
Burtz has been on the domestic batters program for months after Stransky allowed him to settle the Bermuda Dunes affair.
In December, a facilitator at the Batters program underestimated Burts’ risk of recurrence and wrote that he was “continuing to make great efforts” and “practicing methods … to prevent violence in his current relationship.”
Later that month, police arrived at the Indio apartment, where Kiri could not breathe, as Burtus was staying with Knighton. Prosecutors said the boy had a broken head, head and chest injuries and a linear wound in the neck.
Prosecutors acknowledged that Burts was the sole caregiver that day and that his daughter Burts had put a rope around the baby’s neck at least once.
“It was the murder of his own son,” Von Esch wrote in a sentencing memo to the court last month.
“There is a straightforward logical line of progress: from batteries to criminal domestic violence, from brutal domestic violence to murder now,” the prosecutor wrote. “Defendant clearly did not learn his lesson and continues to commit crimes of an increasingly serious nature, resulting in a final crime – murder.”
Von Esch added: “Life could have been saved if the court had complied with the sentence recommended by the public in a criminal petition with a time limit of 180 days.”
But neither the prosecutor nor Strunsky was able to persuade Burt to file a petition, which resulted in a jail term. Even if Burt agreed to a 180-day prison sentence, it is not certain that he was in lockup on the controversial day. In fact, 180 days means half of that time, and because of the congestion, it is often even less so, according to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the prisons.
Burts has pleaded not guilty to the charges of killing and torturing his son. His lawyer, Sean Sullivan, said Burtz was “performing admirably in his courtroom compulsory classes,” adding: “Mr Burtz called 911 and was demonstrating measures to resuscitate Kiri when officers arrived. Additionally, the postmortem showed no signs of strangulation. “
Sullivan said the memo sent to Stransky was a “disgraceful attempt” by Hestrin’s office to injure a political opponent, and that he would ask the court to remove the DA’s office from the case.
Along with Stransky, Lara Graysley, an appellate lawyer with a criminal defense background, is challenging Hestrin for a DA job. He questioned why Burts was charged with domestic violence instead of felony in his first domestic violence case, and was then allowed to plead guilty to lesser charges of disturbing the peace.
“It’s less than a slap on the pulse,” Graysley said. “It’s extremely hypocritical for DA to blame the judge in this instance, because there are so many failures in DA’s favor.”
Hestrin, as a two-time incumbent, has largely outperformed his two rivals in the race and is enjoying funding and support from law enforcement unions. According to the most recent campaign revelations, Hestrin has raised about 1 million, Strunsky $ 117,000 and Grace $ 100,000.
Gresley and Stransky have made the police union a point of no money. Graceley has the backing of the Riverside Press-Enterprise, and she describes Stransky as “far-left progressive,” a label she has resisted in the county where she carries major political responsibilities.
She cited Strunsky’s supporters as evidence of her political leanings. Along with Newsom, Strunsky is supported by Planned Parenthood and Inland Empire United, a non-profit organization that championes progressive causes.
There has been no public voting in the DA race. If no candidate gets a majority in June, the top two will compete in the final November.
Stransky said Von Esch had no reason other than politics to write a memo in the first place on the issue of domestic violence. That’s because the murder charge strongly puts the issue of domestic violence on the back burner.
Get to the bottom of LA politics
In this crucial election year, we will break the ballot and explain in our LA on the Record newsletter why this is important.
You may occasionally receive promotional material from the Los Angeles Times.
The DA’s office responded that memos are necessary to “avoid arguments” and “inform the record” because cases go to court, often in the hands of new judges and lawyers.
Riverside County Defense Attorney Brian Gurwitz, who occasionally practices Burtz Stransky’s decision in the domestic violence case – to agree to reduce crime abuse if Bertz completes the Batters program – was a “middle-of-the-road sentence,” adding: It amazes the lawyers on both sides. “
Stransky said it was no coincidence that the memo was filed three months after he announced his candidacy for district attorney. If prosecutors found Burts a serious threat in September, it would be his duty to ask for bail to be revoked and for him to be detained, Stransky said. But they did not.
“I think it gives you a sense of what everyone thought of his dangerousness,” Strunsky said. “No one could have predicted the outcome.”