Kern County's Monstrous D.A.

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


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.