Civil Liberties

Kern County's Monstrous D.A.

Farewell to Ed Jagels, a man who put 25 innocent "child abusers" in prison.

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On his official government web page, Ed Jagels boasts that "During Jagels' tenure as District Attorney, Kern County has had the highest per capita prison commitment rate of any major California County." Note that the D.A. makes no claim about the New Jersey-sized county of farms and oil fields being any safer through his efforts. Instead, he gloats about how many of his constituents he's put behind bars. It's a telling bit of braggadocio.

In October, Jagels told the Bakersfield Californian that after 26 years in office, he won't be running for reelection in 2010. Good riddance to him. You'd be hard pressed to find a law enforcement official anywhere in the country who better embodies the worst excesses of America's sharp turn toward law-and-order crime policy over last 30 years. From expanding the death penalty to eroding the rights of the accused to jacking up prison populations to formulating crime policy around sports metaphors, Jagels created a high-profile position by backing just about every bad crime policy in a generation.

But if history dispenses justice more honorably than Ed Jagels ever did, the boyish-looking D.A. will be most remembered for his role ruining countless lives in perhaps the most shameful of the Reagan-era "tough on crime" debacles: the coast-to-coast sex abuse panic of the 1980s.

Jagels began his career as an assistant district attorney in Kern County, then took over his boss's position in 1982 after winning a controversial election against state Superior Court Judge Marvin Ferguson. The election swung in Jagels' direction during a debate with Ferguson, when an anti-crime activist revealed the contents of a confidential file in the judge's ruling on a child custody case which led to the girl being killed by her stepfather. According to a subsequent grand jury report, the file was illegally lifted from the county courthouse by Colleen Ryan, one of Jagels' fellow assistant D.A.s. Jagels had run on a vigorous anti-crime platform, and wasted no time clearing the D.A.'s office's old guard, re-staffing it with younger prosecutors more in line with his philosophy. Needless to say, he never investigated Ryan for stealing the court file. She went on to become a judge.

At about the same time Jagels took office, Bakersfield (the Kern County seat) was in the midst of a strange scandal. Rumors had circulated for years that older, well-connected men among Bakersfield's political, law enforcement, and business elite were involved in sex rings with underage teen boys. The "Lords of Bakersfield" rumors gained traction after several young gay men in the community were murdered in the early 1980s, and the accused were given relatively light sentences. Jagels did make sex crimes a priority during his first years in office, but he had little interest in the Lords of Bakersfield. Indeed, the notoriously tough on crime prosecutor took a pass, going easy when the alleged boyfriend of one of his assistant D.A.s kept getting arrested on drug charges. Jagels' subordinate was later murdered by the young man's father.

Instead, Jagels set his sights on Kern County's lower middle class. Relying on suggestive police and social worker interrogations of children, Jagels' office put 26 people behind bars on felony child sex abuse charges in the 1980s and '90s. Of those 26 convictions, 25 have since been overturned.

The details were lurid, and bore striking similarity to the fantastical stories that were springing from similar cases all over the country, from Florida to Massachusetts to Washington State. Parents were accused of having sex with their own children, of forcing young siblings to have sex with each other, of inviting neighbors over for adult-child orgies. When the national panic began to include stories of cult activity and Satan worship, Jagels' and the Kern County Sheriff's Department managed to locate that sordid activity in Bakersfield, too. Now children began telling investigators they had been forced to drink blood; they were hung from ceilings naked and beaten; infants were sodomized, murdered, and cannibalized. There was never any physical evidence to back the accusations. The photos the children alleged the accused to have taken during the acts never surfaced. The bodies of the murdered babies were never found. In one case a child alleged to have been murdered was found alive and healthy, living with her parents.

Many of Jagels' victims are profiled in the moving 2008 documentary Witch Hunt. They aren't limited to the people he put in prison. Particularly wrenching are the interviews with children who made the false accusations. They're now adults, and have carried unfathomable guilt and remorse. Some of these children put their parents in prison for a decade or more. In one scene, a man who falsely accused his neighbor of molesting him as a child breaks down in tears as he explains how due to fear and guilt, he's never been able to bathe his own son.

But when some of these child accusers came forward as adults to recant their testimony and demand the release of the people they helped wrongly put in prison, Jagels and his deputies called them liars in court.

Witch Hunt includes footage of Jagels stating with isn't-it-obvious mockery that children simply don't lie about these sorts of things. Except that they do, especially when they're led and guilted into lying by adult authority figures. Jagels' victim Jeff Modahl was released in 1999 after serving 15 years for molesting his own daughters. One piece of evidence key to his release was an audio tape that surfaced in the late 1990s of a police interview with one of the girls. In it, the interviewers clearly lead the girl, drop in suggestions, and repeat questions until they get affirmative answers. Modahl's lawyers also found a medical exam performed on Modahl's daughter showing none of the physical evidence that should have been present if the allegations had been true. Neither the report nor the tape were turned over to Modahl's lawyers for his trial. His daughter has since recanted her testimony and helped win her father's release. She says in the movie that she's battled addiction problems her entire life to bury the guilt she feels for putting him in prison.

In 1986, a grand jury released a blistering report on the sex abuse prosecutions, accusing Kern County officials of fostering a "presumption of guilt" and bringing charges on little more than hunches. California Attorney General John Van de Kamp released a report in September of the same year reaching the same conclusions. But no Kern County official was ever fired or disciplined, and the prosecutions continued. Jagels continued to get elected. So far, Kern County has paid out more than $9 million in wrongful conviction settlements.

In his 1999 book Mean Justice, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes noted that by Jagels' second term, the D.A. had tripled the number of prosecutorial misconduct complaints of his predecessor. He was regularly berated by appellate courts for withholding exculpatory evidence and for his courtroom behavior, admonishments Jagels seemed to relish. Bakersfield had gone from a blue-collar town of farmers and oil workers to the poster city for the lock 'em up movement. Residents touted the city's mock slogan: "Come for vacation, leave on probation."

Jagels' influence has leaked across county borders. Over the course of his career he has been a leading voice in formulating and pushing the policies that have overpopulated California's prisons. He boasts that he's pursued the state's controversial "three strikes and you're out" policy more aggressively than any prosecutor in the state, though as one anti-three strikes activist group points out, since the law was implemented Kern County's crime rate has dropped at a significantly slower rate than jurisdictions such as San Francisco County, where three strikes isn't enforced. Jagels was also at the fore of 1990's Proposition 115, which made significant pro-prosecution changes to pre-trial hearings and the discovery process. More recently, Jagels weighed in on the medical marijuana debate, recommending that all dispensaries in Kern County be prohibited. He also led the effort to get three anti-death penalty justices removed from the California Supreme Court, an ironic twist, given that Ed Jagels and his 25 false convictions is a walking argument against the death penalty.

Perhaps the most troubling thing about Ed Jagels' career is that not only have the legal and political systems in California never sanctioned him for his monstrous behavior, he's been regularly rewarded for it. He has served as both president and director of the powerful California District Attorneys Association (CDAA), and on a number of blue ribbon panels charged with advising state officials on crime policy. Upon Jagels' retirement announcement, Scott Thorpe, the current head of the CDAA, told the Associated Press that Jagels is a "prosecutor's prosecutor," a remarkable and revealing statement of that organization's commitment to justice. Jagels is also listed as a crime policy advisor to Meg Whitman, a leading candidate for the California GOP's 2010 gubernatorial nomination.

Given his history, the obituary for Jagels' career ought to describe a rogue, renegade prosecutor long ago shunted to the fringe by colleagues embarrassed by his continuing reelection. Instead, as a former subordinate recently told the Bakersfield Californian, "Prosecutors from around the state seek and respect his advice on almost every issue of public safety."

And that's the problem. Bad actors like Jagels aren't shunned. They're venerated. Peers seek their counsel. And the same justice system so eager to mete out accountability to the accused continues to fail to hold accountable the people we entrust to run it.

Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

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51 responses to “Kern County's Monstrous D.A.

  1. Mr. Balko, I love your work man but I gotta pass on this today in favor of my family. It’s the monday before Christmas and I don’t need to stroke out.

  2. Mr. Balko would like to buy a “T” Pat…

    Big Money! No Whamies!

  3. Radley strikes again. Just when you think he can’t bring any more bad news about the “justice” system in our country, there’s more. I don’t know how to get away from it though, because enough people like this sort of thing for making them feel safer… Just as long as it’s “bad people” who get caught up in the net.

  4. Needless to say, he never investigated Ryan for stealing the court file. She went on to become a judge.

    Isn’t that a matter for Jerry Brown’s office to handle? Since when is local corruption left to the perps themselves to investigate?

    -jcr

  5. Yet he kept getting elected.

    The people of the county wanted a tough law and order man, and they got one they liked.

    The problem isn’t so much the assholes, it’s the idiots that elect them.

    1. TrickVic “The problem isn’t so much the assholes, it’s the idiots that elect them.”

      Indeed, that’s how we get the Big O…

  6. The problem isn’t so much the assholes, it’s the idiots that elect them.

    True, but you have to think that somewhere on the road to 25 wrongful convictions, the courts or state bar might have stepped in to say enough is enough.

    1. In a semi-perfect world yes.

      But, you are appealing to people of the same mindset.

      It’s the same reason that no matter how much you get on Haynes, the state of Mississippi wants him back. The wrongness serves the state.

      Will there be some critical mass of knowledge that will change the public’s mind on tough on crime candidates? I don’t know. But I will say, if there is, and it can be done, it will largely be based on your efforts.

      So while I think the mindset of the common citizen makes it close to moot, I don’t think your efforts are in vain. Keep up the good work.

      1. Balko is like a strawfarmer. America is a camel. Staw, Camel’s Back, etc.

  7. As a resident of Bakersfield, CA, I am continually amazed that this horrific person is reelected. I guess my fellow citizens don’t realize that a D.A. is supposed to prosecute criminals, not conjure up criminals out of thin air. It is disgusting to see the ferociousness that law enforcement hunt down law-abiding citizens in order to make them criminals. Perhaps it is their personal form of economic stimulus. Here’s to you, Jagels, and a retirement that came 28 years too late.

  8. Well done, sir.

    Mr. Balko, not Ed “I-deserve-to-be-sodomized-Abner-Luima-style” Jagel.

  9. Ed Jagels and his 25 false convictions is a walking argument against the death penalty.

    Or maybe a walking argument for the death penalty, if you catch my drift.

    1. Preserve the death penalty but reserve it for officials who abuse their power…

      I might be able to support that.

  10. I’m glad I take beta blockers. I don’t think I could read Balko’s columns and live otherwise.

    1. ARB+HCT hier. agreed.

      Radley’s work is awsesome. Really tough to face, but so glad he’s on the case!

    2. I smoke two bowls before I smoke…er read Balko, and then I smoke two more.

  11. Great article

  12. … after 26 years in office, he [Ed Jagels]won’t be running for reelection in 2010.

    I’m becoming more and more convinced that Americans are too stupid (or fat, dumb and complcent) for self government.

    1. Exactly. But what is so irritating is how we all know this in our private lives but somehow continue to spout high school civics class like rhetoric about the beauty of democracy. The fact is we wouldn’t trust the average person to walk our dogs yet we trust them pick fuck-ups like this douche-nozzle of a prosecutor to wield power over us. Amazing what years of indoctrination will do.

      Here’s my gratuitous advice: Don’t elect positions like prosecutors or dog catchers. Elect the policy makers like governors and legislators. The day-to-day workings of government, such as it is, should be implemented by professionals not politicians.

    2. There has never been a people who were ruled by a government more corrupt than it. That is the dirty little secret of politics. A corrupt people get a corrupt government.

      1. BINGO! America is a corrupt state driven by all the wrong ideas; the sad thing is most people are intellectually dishonest and never realize that their bad acts could get them in the sights of this Jagels monster

  13. I actually live in Kern county (Ridgecrest), and I am just so pleased that we Kernholes got a mention in Reason, my favorite reading pass-time.

    One of the truly great things about voting L is that you get to disassociate yourself from the Jagels-types.

  14. If you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fe….,oops, never mind.

  15. He keeps getting elected. The fact that such a weasel acts like a weasel is plenty outrageous. But that he keeps winning elections says something too. What’s the old saw? In a Democracy, the people get the government they deserve. (good and hard)

    1. Looks like a weasel too

  16. I am a defense attorney and Ed Jagels is lower than whaleshit on the bottom of the ocean. I have not seen Witch Hunt, but I remember my fury reading Mean Justice. I fight every day to do what I can to prevent another Ed Jagels or limit their influence.

    Having said that, I can sympathize with comments that suggest Mr. Jagels should be sodomized or that he should receive the death penalty, but I cannot agree with those comments.

    Part of the reason I do this job is because I believe that some things are simply wrong for the State to do. I don’t think the state should be allowed to execute anybody, even if from all appearances that person deserves it. And I also cannot agree that somebody ‘deserves’ to be forcibly sodomized. If it happened to Jagels, I would certainly feel less pity or sympathy for him than for someone else. But no matter what he’s done, that does not justify inflicting such pain upon him.

    1. Besides, Jagels wouldn’t get the death penalty. That’s reserved for people like Corey Maye.

  17. Guy looks like a self-abuser to me.

  18. Merry Friggin’ Christmas to you too, Radley. Seriously, though, keep up the good work.

  19. When the State persecutes citizens then is rewarded, is akin to the Third Reich being rewarded for torturing and murdering 6 million Jews and some 2 million citizens who were “thought” to of helped them.
    Yes, the “New America” has arisen. And will make the most brutal dictators boy scouts by comparison. Yet, oddly, American people will re-elect these parasites regularly. It’s as if the American people are in a “dysfunctional state of paralysis”. And cannot help themselves as they destroy their own freedoms. And way of life.

  20. I’m one of the filmmakers who did Witch Hunt… thanks for the article. The more people that know about what goes on in Bakersfield the better!

    1. To the film maker who worked on Witch Hunt, please check out Lisa Green who will be running for Ed Jagels seat. She is as bad as jagels. Please expose her before she gets elected. She works in the Bakersfield DA office under Ed jagels. Thank you.

  21. Dana, thanks for making witch hunt. I bought two copies. Good article about this horrid man. Unfortunately, there are prosecutors and for that matter, judges, like him all over the state. Corruption in our state is overwhelming. Every day it seems we hear about yet another person being set free from a crime in which they never committed and were innocent.

  22. How is it that this guy hasn’t been found strung up from a phone pole? I would gladly donate to the defense fund of anyone who did it.

  23. That’s what comes from electing leagal officials. Here in Australia and all otehr common law countries prosecuting officers are appointed and are treated like civil servants. They have no route to higher office and have no electoral mandate, so they tend to do their jobs without trying to enforce any policy other than that of the elected government.

    1. “…so they tend to do their jobs without trying to enforce any policy other than that of the elected government.”

      Really? They enforce the policy of the elected government? Well now I feel sooooooo much better.

      1. It is much better. Sure the laws in Oz can suck, but generally if you’re prosecuted and you don’t deserve it it’s because you broke a sucky law. Not because the local head of the DPP wants to look tough.

        1. Another “hello” moment: Maybe you think it’s fine, but I don’t know many people who would want to have enforcement of laws change with the passing of each administration.
          How about fewer of them and some consistency?
          We get enough of that Bullshit in the US.

  24. Sadly, corrupt and unsavory DAs don’t seem to be very uncommon in the middle of California.

    I have first-hand information that Robert Brown, the Mariposa County DA, is in cahoots with the county sheriffs and some local zealous building contractors to encroach illegally onto private land by claiming that the county has established an “easement” on the land. Of course, no such official easement exists, and the building contractor just wants to put up a bunch of homes on someone else’s property. There’s no recourse for the homeowner because the sheriff dutifully turns a blind eye.

    Apparently the DA has no trouble getting re-elected every year either, due to a whole network of “old boys” in the county, along with who knows how many favors done.

    It’s a disgraceful and maddening situation.

  25. “You’d be hard pressed to find a law enforcement official anywhere in the country who better embodies the worst excesses of America’s sharp turn toward law-and-order crime policy over last 30 years.”

    Really? Have you tried googling “America’s worst sheriff”?

  26. How do these people sleep at night? How can they live with themselves? They are nothing more than common crooks and murderers — Who’s looking out for us?

  27. We’ve got an assistant DA in Bakersfield who is going to run for DA and that is Lisa Green. She is as bad as Jagels. She had lots of practice under Ed Jagels guidance. I sure hope Lisa Green does not elected.

  28. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gv1fRkTtu4

    Watch this video and see what goes on in California prisons. We held a rally in Sacramento on Dec. 4, 2009 and this was filmed.

  29. Alaska said, “If it happened to Jagels, I would certainly feel less pity or sympathy for him than for someone else. But no matter what he’s done, that does not justify inflicting such pain upon him.”

    I’m curious Alaska, how would you feel about defending say, one of Jagels victims (either a falsely imprisoned adult, or a child coerced into incriminating a parent) who killed the bastard?

    Would you be willing to argue justifiable homicide?

    I’m not trying to score rhetorical points here, I’m just curious how a libertarian-oriented defense lawyer would handle the question.

  30. and Jagel’s obit was so glowing at the time of his demise. I remember it well. These types network up and down the everyday screwing people over and ratcheting what liberties the accused may or may not have left. Just as in Bakersfield stay out of the northern rural counties as well.

  31. jegal put me in jail and pay two peple to give fals testimony we have in on tape

  32. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no joke

  33. and Jagel’s obit was so glowing at the time of his demise. I remember it well. These types network up and down the everyday screwing people over and ratcheting what liberties the accused may or may not have left. Just as in Bakersfield stay out of the northern rural counties as well.
    reply to this

  34. That was a very interesting read, thanks for taking the time to post it.

  35. In October, Jagels told the Bakersfield Californian that after 26 years in office, he won’t be running for reelection in 2010.

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