A Troubled Rape Case 

The high-profile rape charges against Deputy District Attorney Michael Gressett are tainted by questionable facts, unorthodox prosecutorial conduct, and the unmistakable whiff of politics.

The rape allegations from within Contra Costa County's District Attorney's office were bound to make big headlines. Michael Gressett was a 51-year-old deputy district attorney who worked for the sexual assault unit. His alleged victim was a 29-year-old coworker who said Gressett violently assaulted her during a lunch break. The Martinez Police Department's September 2008 press release was replete with lurid charges like "sodomy," "forced oral copulation," and "penetration with a foreign object." The alleged props — including a gun, handcuffs, steak knife, ice cubes, and an ice pick — seemed plucked from the pages of a Marquis de Sade novel.

Not surprisingly, the story attracted wide attention. The San Francisco Chronicle assigned two reporters and the Contra Costa Times posted a complete copy of the criminal complaint on its web site. Television news joined the fray, and soon Gressett's face was plastered all across the Bay Area. And no one followed the story more closely than the lawyers and politicians who work for Contra Costa County. So many people have viewed the case file that clerks in the courthouse keep it handy like it was a popular library book. When a reporter asked for the file by its case number, the clerk immediately said, "Oh, you want the Gressett file."

The veteran prosecutor's reputation as an office iconoclast only added to the case's newsworthiness. Gressett has run for the position of Contra Costa County District Attorney three separate times, putting him in disfavor with the old-boy power structure that has controlled the office for decades. After the charges came to light, District Attorney Robert Kochly did what he could to distance his office from Gressett's alleged behavior. "It's a sad day for our office for anything like this to occur," Kochly told the Chronicle. "Anything of this nature is devastating to the office. It's antithetical to what we're about."

After his arrest, Gressett might have been expected to cease being a thorn in management's side. Once he was released from jail on a $1 million bond, he was promptly fired. He now faces a possible life sentence for thirteen felony counts including rape, forced sodomy, forced oral copulation, and making death threats.

But instead of slinking away, his defense team has mounted an aggressive investigation that is shedding a withering light on both the DA's office and the charges against him. The inquiry exposed an office sexual culture so highly charged that it makes HBO's Mad Men look like pimply sophomores toeing their insteps at a high school dance mixer. The inquiry also sheds light on an unusual contract hiring system in which young attorneys like the alleged victim live in constant fear of losing their jobs. "Pandora's box has been opened and what's inside is not pretty," said Michael Cardoza, one of Gressett's defense attorneys. "I was a deputy district attorney for sixteen years and I am appalled at what goes on in that office."

Both Gressett and his alleged victim, who is referred to in court filings as "Jane Doe," provide a remarkably similar account of the acts that occurred during their kinky sexual encounter. The critical difference in their stories is whether the sex was consensual. And the defense has unearthed evidence that it could have been.

But that is not the only flaw in the prosecution's case against Gressett. Jane Doe appears to have misrepresented significant facts of the case to investigators, co-workers, or friends, according to notes from the official investigation. For instance, although she told colleagues that she was seriously injured during the assault, Gressett's attorneys say this conflicts with medical records that show no such injuries. She also did not immediately seek medical attention or report the rape to police, but instead went to a private attorney who is well connected to the power structure in the DA's office.

The case's final problem is the unorthodox way that the DA's office handled its investigation. After District Attorney Kochly was made aware of the allegations, he took no action for four and a half months — a period during which Gressett was allowed to continue working alongside female deputy district attorneys and sex-crime victims. Months later, once Kochly did take action, he assigned the investigation to a lawyer who has bad blood with Gressett and a significant stake in the office's upcoming election.

Gressett's attorneys say the prosecution is a politically motivated witch hunt that has sidelined two of the administration's internal threats. Indeed, the case has bled into next year's election for district attorney by drawing both frontrunners into the fray. Kochly's anointed heir, whose law partner initially represented Jane Doe, has hired his own attorney to keep Gressett's attorneys from obtaining his telephone records, which could have a bearing on the case. Meanwhile, Kochly demoted Gressett's supervisor — who also happens to be a candidate for DA and a serious threat to Kochly's chosen successor — for complaining about the manner in which the DA conducted the rape investigation.

"This case has stirred up a shit storm," said Gressett's lead attorney Daniel Russo. "And the Contra Costa District Attorney's Office is right in the middle of it."

Since the 1960s, the district attorney has been perhaps the most powerful person in Contra Costa County. The office has been run by a line of Republicans who have always been favored by the county's power structure, which is largely funded by the county's five oil refineries. When John Nejedly, the county's first full-time DA, retired in 1969, the job went to William O'Malley. In 1984, O'Malley handed it to Gary Yancey, who handed it to Robert Kochly, who is now hoping to hand it to William O'Malley's son, Dan O'Malley.

Gressett has challenged the line of succession in three elections, which has perpetually put him at odds with the DA's administration. He ran against Yancey twice, once in 1994 and again in 1998. In 2002, he ran against Kochly during his first campaign for office. Since then, there has been tension between Gressett and Kochly's administration. One way the administration has demonstrated its disfavor toward Gressett is by repeatedly passing him over for promotion, according to his attorneys. There has been a long-standing policy that all lawyers who reach their fifteen-year anniversary in the office automatically receive a promotion to a level-four pay grade. Gressett, however, was the only lawyer repeatedly passed over for that promotion, according to his attorneys. They note that he only finally received the promotion in his nineteenth year, presumably because he didn't run against Kochly again in 2006.

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