Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 8, 2010

Family of Officer Richard May furious about leak

Defense attorneys release documents impugning May's conduct, bypassing the court

by Sue Dremann

The family of slain East Palo Alto Police Officer Richard May is outraged that the defense attorneys for May's convicted killer, Alberto Alvarez, have leaked documents to a reporter that try to impugn May's personal and professional character.

One relative called the leak a "despicable" act, coming soon after a San Mateo County jury unanimously recommended the death sentence for Alvarez Dec. 22.

Relatives of May told the Weekly Wednesday that the defense attorney had leaked documents to the press in an effort to damage May's character.

In pretrial motions, two separate judges had excluded information about an alleged October 2003 domestic dispute between May and his ex-wife that resulted in May's brief arrest and a restraining order. There is no record of any prosecution of the allegations.

A separate allegation of poor conduct while May was a Lompoc police officer was not presented during Alvarez's trial because it would have been inflammatory, Eric Liberman, one of Alvarez's two defense attorneys, said at the time.

Liberman later told the Weekly the defense attorneys plan to bring up professional allegations against May during the final sentencing hearing on Feb. 2. He said they hope the court's earlier preclusion of information about May's past will lead to the case being thrown out or to a reduction of the sentence to life in prison.

But May's family and Steve Wagstaffe, San Mateo County senior deputy district attorney, are crying foul over the defense attorneys' tactics of leaking the documents to a reporter while not filing any motion in court and before providing any court motion to the prosecutor.

On or about Jan. 5, Robinson reportedly approached Palo Alto Daily News reporter Jessica Bernstein-Wax with the documents, according to Wagstaffe.

But Bernstein-Wax on Thursday denied having been approached by the defense attorneys. She said she had requested the documents four days prior.

Frank Merrill, May's stepfather, told the Weekly he was approached for comment about the documents by Bernstein-Wax.

Wagstaffe said the leaked information, as read to him by the reporter, appears to be a rehash of information the defense previously tried to get admitted into the trial, which was rejected by two judges.

"It's an interesting way to practice law. I've never heard of defense attorneys sending a legal motion to a reporter without filing it with the court and first serving it to an attorney.

"It's part of what we do. When you send something, you file it with the court. Otherwise, it's just a press release," Wagstaffe said.

He called the information "very critical of a dead officer that in another circumstance, if the person was alive, would be defamatory."

Merrill called it "despicable" for the attorneys to leak the information after a conviction and sentence that was not in their client's favor.

He said the 2003 argument involving May's ex-wife, Sarah Rivera, who was divorced from May in 1993, was witnessed by May's current wife, Diana, and May's mother. The women tried to call a police officer by cell phone, but the call was dropped. The officer, believing May's mother hung up on him, decided to believe the ex-wife's story, Merrill said.

Of allegations relating May's record as a police officer in Lompoc, Calif., Merrill said, "There is nothing there. It's just more of their defense claiming he was a rogue, violent cop."

Charles Robinson, Alvarez's lead defense attorney, when asked for copies of the documents by the Weekly Wednesday, said he was not sure he could provide them.

"I've just put them away. I'll have to see if I can dig them out," he said. He later said in an e-mail that he had purged the documents from his computer after copying them to a DVD and putting it with information to be stored.

He said he could not again get to the information until late Thursday or Friday.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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