MARTINEZ — A February plea deal that set a man free from Death Row 33 years after he was convicted of raping and beating an 84-year-old widow to death has led to harsh criticism from inside and outside the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s office.
The grandchildren of Richmond resident Carmen Vasquez — who was found beaten to death inside her home on Jan. 22, 1985 — say they weren’t told in advance the man convicted of killing their grandma was going to be set free. Prosecutors only informed their uncle, an 86-year-old man suffering from early dementia, of the impending plea deal, and they found out through media reports after the fact, they said.
“I am still furious,” said Carol Sherman, one of Vasquez’s 10 grandchildren, who added that her family would have spoken out against the deal in court. “Maybe we wouldn’t have made a difference, but we would have been heard.”
Within the district attorney’s office, more than a dozen employees expressed anger over freeing of Freddie Lee Taylor, 58, after he was granted a new trial on appeal in 2016. Taylor had been sentenced to die by gas chamber for Vasquez’s murder in 1986. None of the employees agreed to speak on the record, citing fear of retaliation.
“The deputy district attorney assigned and the supervising district attorney had no sense of the facts of this case or state of law, and made the decision unprofessionally and recklessly, jeopardizing the safety of the public,” said one former prosecutor who was there when the plea deal went through and spoke on condition of anonymity.
A district attorney spokesman said the decision to free Taylor was made after “extensive” evaluation, in light of a 2016 federal appeals court decision that called into question Taylor’s mental competency at the time of trial. Taylor has suffered from lifelong mental illness, and his mental health should have been explored further at the time, the court ruled.
The judge gave prosecutors two options: free Taylor, or retry him.
In 2016, a senior prosecutor had anticipated that decision coming down and planned to retry Taylor, but when the case came back to the Contra Costa County courts system, a different attorney was assigned, according to several current and former employees with firsthand knowledge. Last Feb. 20, Taylor pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was set free later that day.
“The people have the ethical and legal duty of proving this case beyond a reasonable doubt,” said district attorney spokesman Scott Alonso. “Our office came to this decision after a thorough evaluation of the case and extensive deliberation.”
Taylor was one of two California Death Row inmates freed this year, in the weeks before Gov. Gavin Newsom put executions on hold.
‘If just one of us would have been called it would have been a different scenario’
Three days before Taylor’s plea deal, the assigned deputy district attorney, Jason Peck, called Edward Vasquez, 86, Carmen Vasquez’s son who had found her body in 1985, to tell him Taylor would soon be released. Vasquez’s grandkids say their “Uncle Eddie” has early onset dementia and did not know who he was talking to.
“He thought the man on the phone was talking about his wife, who recently passed,” said Thomas Garcia, another of Vasquez’s grandchildren. “He was confused.”
Days later, one of their cousins saw a story in this newspaper abut Taylor’s release, and began sharing it with the family. Sherman said they were “furious” and called a meeting with Peck and District Attorney Diana Becton. They met with Peck and members of Becton’s administration, and say they were told prosecutors had a “roster” of other family who could have been contacted.
“If just one of us would have been called it would have been a different scenario,” Garcia said. Sherman said Peck admitted to them he had “dropped the ball.”
The family said they’re researching whether the district attorney’s office complied with Marsy’s Law, a California constitutional amendment that entitles crime victims’ families to notifications about relevant happenings in the defendant’s case. Alonso said the law had been complied with and added: “A senior inspector in the DA’s office searched for the victim’s next of kin. That search resulted in Mr. Edward Vasquez being contacted by our office.”
Dan O’Malley, a former prosecutor, judge and current defense attorney, said neglecting to call the grandchildren could be, at most, a “hypertechnical” violation since Edward Vasquez had been notified.
“But Marsy’s Law aside, when I was at the DA’s office we always tried to keep the family apprised of everything, whether it was a disposition in the case or the defendant getting transferred to a new prison,” O’Malley said. Marsy’s Law, he said, “gives the victims a right to come in and object, and if they do, the judge is required to consider their objection.”
In cases where the law is violated, a victim’s family could petition for a plea deal to be nullified, O’Malley said.
‘We had a duty to retry it,’ says former prosecutor
The case against Taylor was based largely upon fingerprints linked to Taylor, found inside Vasquez’s home. Some prints were on a plexiglass door that had been placed there after Taylor burglarized the house days earlier, according to the probation report.
Evidence logs also preserved rape test kits from 1985. Vasquez’s grandchildren were told those kits went untested, but Alonso said they were sent to a lab in January. The results, which showed no DNA in the swabs, came back Feb. 19, one day before Taylor’s plea deal, Alonso said.
Alonso also said the case was hindered because several key witnesses at the Richmond police department had died, but a Richmond police detective contacted by this newspaper said that is not true. And several prosecutors said the testimony and cross examination of any dead witnesses could have been read into the record.
“We let the public down. … He is such a violent offender that our duty to the public was to retry it,” the former prosecutor said. “The downside would be that he would ultimately get out, but he’s out now.”
Vasquez, her grandkids say, was a “loving, churchgoing” woman who “loved to crochet and make doilies.” She enjoyed gardening and “was the first in the family to get a color TV.” She was also adamant about staying in her house, where she lived alone, despite a growing crime problem in the area, they said.
After his sentence, Taylor granted an interview to a probation officer and admitted being in the house at the time of the killing, but claimed someone else was the real murderer, according to court records.
Taylor is an Oklahoma native who regularly traveled between there and Richmond. He has several prior convictions, including a violent robbery of a 71-year-old woman five years before Vasquez’s killing. In 1981, he was found guilty of assault with intent to commit rape after he attacked a woman, who managed to stab him and get away.
During his youth, Taylor was subjected to lengthy stays at juvenile jails where he received horrific abuse, according to court records. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, brain damage and borderline personality disorder.
Taylor also showed signs of mental illness throughout the trial, chuckling and telling his lawyer to “be cool” after he was sentenced, and occasionally speaking incoherently. On the day Taylor was sentenced to die, the trial judge said it would be a “travesty of justice” if he ever walked free, according to media reports.