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From left: plaintiff’s co-lead counsel James Parkinson, former prosecutor and plaintiff Christopher Ross, co-lead counsel Terry Singleton and former Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach.

A former Riverside prosecutor claimed the DA’s Office retaliated against him for blowing the whistle on what he believed was the due process violations of a jailed murder suspect.

Nov. 14, after eight years and two appellate rulings, a jury ruled against him.

Christopher Ross, labeled a superstar prosecutor by many witnesses in the trial, claimed he was put on administrative leave in 2013 because he found evidence and told supervisors that showed the District Attorney’s Office had violated then-defendant Roger Parker’s due process rights. County defendants testified that they believed Parker’s case needed more investigation, and that they placed Ross on leave out of concern for his health. Ross resigned his position April 24, 2014.


Ross claimed his supervisors, including then-District Attorney Paul Zellerbach and then-Assistant District Attorney Sean Lafferty – who is now a Riverside Superior judge, used the pretext of medical accommodations to place him on administrative leave. Ross had been undergoing a series of medical examinations at the Mayo Clinic to determine if he had any life-threatening diseases, which he ultimately did not.

His case brought both whistleblower-protection and disability-discrimination charges. The jury did not believe Ross’ actions triggered protections under either law.

The jury found that Ross’ sharing of evidence with his supervisors did not trigger whistleblower protection, because he was not disclosing a violation of state or federal law. They also found that Ross did not have a physical disability that the District Attorney’s Office could have discriminated against him for.

Since the jury answered no to both of those questions, the jury did not consider whether the members of the District Attorney’s Office retaliated against him.

“The jury has spoken. We disagree with the verdict,” said Ross’ attorney, James Parkinson, by text. “Mr. Ross is a great American who was an incredible deputy district attorney.”

County’s counsel has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Parkinson said by phone that Ross is considering an appeal based on the trial’s venue. The case against Riverside County was heard by Riverside County taxpayers, presided over by a Riverside County judge, supervised by a Riverside County bailiff, in a county building, Parkinson said. The witnesses were a sitting Riverside Superior Judge, Riverside County’s executive officer and three of the county’s elected district attorneys, Parkinson continued.

Ross’ team was also impacted early on by the departure of their co-lead counsel, Terry Singleton, who suffered a stroke while examining a witness, and did not return to the trial.


“This destroyed my reputation. It took me years to build my reputation. Now, I had to leave the state,” Ross testified.

Throughout the testimony, members of the District Attorney’s Office claimed they put him on leave out of concern for his health. 

District Attorney Michael Hestrin was scheduled to appear as well, but Riverside Superior Judge Kira Klatchko decided, last minute, that his testimony could not be heard as a matter of law, after hearing his testimony outside the presence of the jury.

Stevenson murder investigation

Ross had been assigned to prosecute a case against Roger Parker, who was accused of killing Brandon “Tennessee” Stevenson, on March 18, 2010. The prosecutor originally assigned to the case, Lisa DiMaria, refused to prosecute, because she believed Parker’s confession during a 15-hour interrogation was coerced. Ross believed the same. 

A May 12, 2013, document from Ross recommended that the case be dismissed as “it appears to be rife with reasonable doubt” and “many of these questions cannot be answered by further investigation.” “Forensic evidence hurts our case against the defendant,” he wrote.

Both Zellerbach and Lafferty claimed they thought Ross believed the Parker case should have received more investigation before dismissal.

“I was told they had concerns about trying to prove the case at trial, but were continuing investigating,” Zellerbach said during trial.

Ross conducted three DNA tests from the Stevenson crime scene, and concluded that the results did not implicate Parker. Ross shared the tests with Parker’s defense attorneys. Evidence that clears a defendant is legally required to be handed over to their counsel.

Ross claimed Lafferty had gotten angry when he learned Ross shared the evidence.

In testimony, Lafferty said he never raised his voice at Ross, that the DNA results were inconclusive and that he never told Ross not to share any evidence.

Ross, working with investigator Gordon Govier, discovered a confession from Parker’s roommate, Willie Womack. Womack had told his girlfriend and sister over the phone from jail that he had murdered Stevenson, and Ross heard the confession by listening to recordings of the calls. Ross claims he told Lafferty that he would share the confession with Parker’s counsel Oct. 29, 2013, and that Lafferty grew angry at him and began yelling. Lafferty then told Ross that “he would handle it,” Ross said.

Within the week, on Nov. 1, 2013, Ross was removed from the case and placed on leave.

The DA’s Office dismissed the case five months later, on March 6, 2014, according to a document from Parker’s lawsuit against the county. Parker did not learn about Womack’s confession until October, 2020.

Ross claims the office retaliated against him for his investigation of the Parker case, with Ross’ health issues as a pretext, and with the express knowledge and consent of Zellerbach. Zellerbach denied direct knowledge of the case during testimony.

Medical examinations and accommodations

Before joining the Riverside District Attorney’s Office in 2005, Ross conducted hostage rescue missions as a Green Beret in the Iraq War. He suffered multiple injuries from his time in the military, and was placed at higher risk for health issues. By July 2014, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic concussion syndrome due to his service, his complaint claims.

In 2013, while working in the District Attorney’s Office homicide unit, a doctor, recognizing negative symptoms, notified him that he might have a neurological disease. He requested time off to be examined for multiple sclerosis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. He began visiting the Mayo Clinic for weeks at a time in July 2013, using his paid time off. 

His complaint claims he requested a transfer out of the homicide unit until his diagnostics were complete. He later requested to keep his current cases, but not to be assigned any new ones, to alleviate his stress at the advice of his doctors. A later memo by him shows he requested a new position with no stress and no deadlines. 

District Attorney personnel testified that Ross was inconsistent in his requests. Chief Deputy District Attorney Tricia Fransdal, his supervisor, offered him a transfer to the filing unit, which he declined. Ross testified the filing unit was designed to force deputy district attorneys out of their jobs, by having a quota system impossible to reach.

Ross testified he received more cases, including a death penalty case.

Zellerbach claims that the filing unit would have offered less stress, and would have fulfilled Ross’ request.

Zellerbach and Lafferty both testified they believed Ross’ use of time off, and their offers to transfer him to filings, qualified as accommodations. 

“My understanding was that every accommodation that Ross asked for was provided to him,” then-Assistant District Attorney Jeffrey Van Wagenen testified. Van Wagenen is currently Riverside’s county executive officer.

Doctor’s note

In early fall 2013, Lafferty began asking for a doctor’s note that communicated Ross’ necessary accommodations. The Mayo Clinic declined to write a doctor’s note, and Ross claimed the note would have been a violation of his Health Information Privacy and Portability Act (HIPPA) rights. 

During testimony, former District Attorney Rod Pacheco said that management could not require a doctor’s note. It “would be an unreasonable request in this situation” because of HIPPA, he said.

Michael Hestrin, who was president of the prosecutor’s union at the time, told Ross that the doctor’s note requirement violated Ross’ rights under the contract between the DA’s Office and the union, according to a Court of Appeal ruling

After additional tests, on Oct. 10, the Mayo Clinic cleared Ross of the diseases they were concerned he had. Ross told his supervisors, through union representative John Aki, that “he was fine,” that there was “nothing wrong with him,” and that Ross could work in his current assignment and carry a full caseload, according to an internal email.

Lafferty and Zellerbach claimed they could not act on Aki’s communication, because it did not come directly from Ross. They testified Ross himself never communicated that he was cleared. 

An Oct. 10, 2013, email from Lafferty to other members of the DA’s Office management  showed that he wanted medical information from Ross. Lafferty testified that he wanted more information to end months of uncertainty. 

“I will be scheduling a meeting with Ross tomorrow morning to discuss further, govern everything he has done/expressed thus far. I’m of the opinion that we need to proceed with the medical certification. What concerns me, however, is that the doctor’s review will come back ‘clean bill of health, no limitations or restrictions,’ and then I have some other issues with Mr. Ross,” Lafferty wrote.

A response from the county’s human resources division on the same day, written by Renee Goldman, said that they should continue asking for a doctor’s note.

“I think regardless of the conversation with Aki, that we should adhere to our original plan of action,” Goldman wrote. 

“If he brings in a note indicating he has no restrictions, then we treat him as such and performance coach, or take possible progressive disciplinary measures to address any issues we have with his performance or conduct,” Goldman continued.

Lafferty testified that those disciplinary measures were options, not recommendations.

Lafferty and Zellerbach both confirmed during trial that the “original plan” was to ask for a doctor’s note.

Lafferty testified that the doctor’s note was necessary to know how to accommodate Ross going forward.

During an Oct. 11, 2013, meeting, Lafferty asked Ross for a doctor’s note. Ross claimed Lafferty raised his voice and yelled at him. Lafferty denied this. Lafferty issued a directive order for Ross to provide a doctor’s note.

Lafferty suspected Ross was lying about his accommodation requests around this time, he testified.

“I’ve come to believe he is a liar,” Lafferty testified.

Administrative leave

The Nov. 18, 2013, letter that placed him on leave said that he was being insubordinate by not providing a doctor’s note.

Zellerbach said he was placed on leave both for medical reasons, but also for not providing the doctor’s note. “We wanted to accommodate Mr. Ross because of his concerns about his stress,” Zellerbach testified.

Ross remained on paid leave for about seven months. 

The office sent a letter April 13, 2014, with three options: for Ross to return to work without accommodations, for Ross to undergo a fitness for duty exam or for Ross to be placed on medical release.

Ross declined all options. In testimony, he said he was concerned that the county would find a pretext to fire him, either by placing him in the filing unit’s quota system, or by finding private medical information they could use to disqualify him from the job.

Around April 24, 2014, he resigned his employment, stating in his complaint he was “unable to return to work under the intolerable conditions established by (the county and District Attorney’s Office employees).” Ross was still getting paid at the time. 

Victim’s letter

Ross had been prosecuting parties charged with murder in the death of Bill Dobbs. Dobbs’ wife, Toni Dawson, wrote a letter to Zellerbach Nov. 12, 2013, after Ross was placed on administrative leave. Dawson claimed Ross was taken off her case because of “political reasons,” and that she wanted him to continue prosecuting the case.

Dawson threatened to “go to the media if necessary.” Dawson has not yet replied to a request for comment.

Zellerbach testified he did not know what Dawson meant by “political reasons.” 

In an email to Lafferty, Zellerbach claimed Dawson’s email was “replete with misinformation,” and was the “same immature, childish games that they are playing.”

In testimony, Zellerbach claimed “they” meant people trying to elect current District Attorney Michael Hestrin.

“They have used a very vulnerable family member of a homicide victim to push their own selfish agenda,” Zellerbach said in testimony.

In his deposition, Zellerbach said “they” meant Ross and Aki.  

In Lafferty’s email reply, he wrote “I’d like to find out who told her what, and discipline as appropriate.”

Zellerbach and Lafferty both say they never disciplined anyone relating to the email. 

DA Hestrin’s testimony denied

Although District Attorney Michael Hestrin was at hand to provide testimony regarding a conversation he may have had with county lawyers, irrelevant to the facts of the case, he never testified in front of the jury.

Hestrin was waiting in the courthouse to appear when county counsel Daniel Spradlin raised an objection to the DA’s ability to testify, citing the hearsay rule. Klatchko originally denied Spradlin’s request, but decided to review Hestrin’s testimony away from the jury. After hearing it, she found that the testimony could not be heard as a matter of law.

Hestrin appeared to be ready to testify about a conversation former DA Rod Pacheco testified Hestrin had with county lawyers. Spradlin denied having had this conversation.

During his deposition, Pacheco said that Hestrin had told him unidentified county lawyers directed Hestrin to alter his testimony regarding Zellerbach’s ethical character.

“Mr. Hestrin made it very clear that they tried to get him to say that Mr. Zellerbach – that they didn’t want him to say that Mr. Zellerbach was unethical,” Pacheco said.

Spradlin denied during trial that anyone in his office had had that conversation with Hestrin.

“It is clear that Ross simply wants to depose Mr. Hestrin to throw political mud at him and Mr. Zellerbach, in the hopes of making this case unnecessarily political,” Spradlin argued in his motion to quash Hestrin’s deposition.

Klatchko had granted an earlier motion to quash for Hestrin’s deposition May 10, 2021. “setting aside privilege issues discussions between Pacheco and Hestrin about what the County’s lawyers allegedly said about Zellerbach are not relevant to Plaintiff’s retaliation and discrimination claims,” she ruled. 

The Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division Two, overturned Klatchko’s decision, agreeing that the conversation was irrelevant to Ross’ substantive claims, but relevant to Zellerbach’s credibility, and should be allowed to be presented to the jury.

“Testimony showing the unidentified County lawyers attempted to suppress or alter a witness’s testimony about the credibility of a material witness is also relevant to show the County’s consciousness of guilt,” the Court of Appeal ruled.

Ross’ counsel attempted to disqualify Klatchko from the case May 10, 2021, after she published her tentative ruling regarding Hestrin’s testimony. The attorneys argued Klatchko violated the California Code of Judicial Ethics Canon 3d(2) by not reporting or investigating what they said was witness tampering and an attempt to induce perjury. They also claimed she should recuse herself because Lafferty, at the time a potential defendant, was a judge alongside Klatchko.

Klatchko denied the order, ruling that both their claims were filed too late to be considered, and that attorneys cannot conclude bias based on a judge’s rulings.

“I deny Plaintiff’s contention that I cannot be fair and impartial or that any ground for disqualification exists. I am not biased or prejudiced against or in favor of Plaintiff. I am not biased or prejudiced against or in favor of any party or attorney in this action,” she also declared in her ruling.

Her ruling said, as a matter of law, the decision was unappealable, and could have only been reviewed within 10 days after she issued it.

Early case dismissal reversed

The 8-year-old case had seen a dismissal before the trial.

Riverside Superior Judge David Chapman, who worked as a Riverside prosecutor from 1980 to 1983, had dismissed Ross’ claims for whistleblower retaliation and physical disabilities Feb. 28, 2017, a decision reversed by the Court of Appeal June 20, 2019. 

Chapman ruled that Ross was not disabled,  and that he did not report a violation of law.

“The only possible violation alleged is that Lafferty instructed (Ross) not to turn over to defense counsel in a murder case a recorded confession by another person… Plaintiff offers evidence only that Lafferty told him that he, Lafferty, would take care of it, not that Lafferty did not do so. Moreover, (Ross) was not complaining to Lafferty that the subject defendant’s right had been violated,” Chapman wrote.

The Court of Appeal said that Ross’ allegations, if true, would demonstrate that Ross was concerned about violating Parker’s due process rights, and about fulfilling his own ethical obligations under state law.

“If credited by a trier of fact, the evidence shows Ross engaged in protected activity because he disclosed information to a governmental or law enforcement agency and to people with authority over him which he reasonably believed disclosed a violation of or noncompliance with federal and state law applicable to criminal prosecutions and prosecutors,” the court ruled.

The Court of Appeal also found that physical disabilities, in a legal context, means impairments that are perceived as potentially disabling. Ross’ claims, if believed, would mean that Ross did have a short-term physical impairment that would be included under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, the court ruled.

Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division One, Presiding Justice Judith McConnell wrote the appellate opinion, which Justices Gilbert Nares and Terry O’Rourke joined.

Parker’s case

Parker now has a federal civil rights case against the county, filed July 29, 2021, for both malicious prosecution and violation of state and federal evidence rules by not sharing Womack’s confession with his counsel. 

California Central District Judge Jesus Bernal partially dismissed Parker’s case Feb. 23. Parker brought his malicious prosecution claim too late, after the statute of limitations had expired, Bernal ruled. Even though Parker had only learned about the confession the previous year, he had even evidence to bring a malicious prosecution case due to his coerced confession, Bernal ruled.

Bernal did not dismiss Parker’s charge claiming the DA’s Office violated his rights considering the confession. 

“Under these circumstances, where Mr. Parker experienced an additional, prolonged period of pretrial confinement seemingly but-for the government’s non-disclosure of material, exculpatory evidence, the Court finds that it cannot rule—as a matter of law—that Mr. Parker’s Brady related claim must be dismissed,” Bernal ruled

The county appealed Bernal’s ruling, arguing that his evidence claim cannot be brought because Parker was not convicted of a crime. That appeal is pending.

“Zellerbach and his supervisory attorneys disregarded (Ross’ and DiMaria’s) recommendations (for dismissal), as well as their ethical obligations, for a political purpose: because Zellerbach believed that dismissing high-profile cases weakened him as a political candidate,” Parker accuses in his complaint.

The complaint cited a 2011 public admonishment against Zellerbach from the Commission on Judicial Performance, stemming from political comments he made about the District Attorney’s Office while Zellerbach was a Riverside Superior judge, and was soon to be a candidate for the District Attorney seat.

(The Commission also admonished him in 2006. They said he committed malfeasance by delaying taking a verdict in a murder case, because he was at an afternoon Anaheim Angels division series game.)

Parker’s complaint also cited Deputy District Attorney John Aki’s Sept. 4, 2014, case against the county (RIC1408586). Aki claimed Zellerbach transferred him to take over Ross’ cases in Indio after Ross was placed on leave in order to impose a four-hour commute on him and take away Aki’s free time, which he would have used to support Zellerbach’s opponent in the District Attorney’s race, current DA Michael Hestrin. That case was dismissed. 

The complaint also referenced a misdemeanor for vandalism that Zellerbach pleaded no contest to. The alleged vandalism was to one of Hestrin’s campaign signs.

Klatchko restricted Parkinson from bringing up Zellerbach’s history in the Ross trial.

Case information

One juror was released Oct. 18 due to dental issues, leaving one alternate juror.

The case was expected to go until mid-December.

Ross filed his claim against the county Feb. 27, 2014, and his lawsuit July 10, 2014. 

James Parkinson, Terry Singleton and Efaon Cobb of Hewgill, Cobb and Lockard represent Ross.

Daniel Spradlin of Woodruff, Spradlin & Smart represents Riverside County.

Case No. PSC1403729.

Riverside Superior Judge Kira Klatchko presides.

Read Ross’ complaint here.

Read the county’s answer to the complaint here.

Read Chapman’s dismissal of the case here.

Read the appellate decision on case dismissal here.

Read Parker’s complaint here.

Read the appellate decision on Hestrin and Pacheco’s conversation here.

Read about Ross’ testimony here.

Read the verdict here.

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