EL CENTRO — Imperial County District Attorney Gilbert Otero disputed allegations by a prominent detractor that his agency has not prosecuted the alleged murderer of El Centro attorney Ann Marie Zimmermann in a timely manner.
The accusations against the DA’s Office were made by Margaret Sauza, a close friend of Zimmermann and the executive director of the Sure Helpline Crisis Center, a local nonprofit which provides crisis intervention, referrals, and resources, and advocates for victims’ rights.
On Friday, Feb. 12, Sauza and several of her supporters gathered on Main Street outside the county Administration Center building to protest what they perceived to be delays in the advancement of the criminal case against defendant Ioan Laurint.
On Monday, Feb. 15, Otero pushed back against any accusation that the DA’s Office has been shirking its duty.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Otero said in a phone interview.
Sauza made her claims against Otero in a nearly five-minute video she livestreamed from the protest and shared on her Facebook page.
“The DA’s Office hasn’t done anything,” Sauza said in the video. “It’s not fair and it’s not right.”
Laurint remains in local custody awaiting trial on one count of murder and is due back in court on April 8. He was initially arrested in March 2017 in connection to the Feb. 17, 2017, fatal stabbing of Zimmermann in an El Centro motel room.
Otero acknowledged that Sauza, who advocates for domestic violence and rape victims in her capacity as Sure Helpline director, has been accusing him of incompetence and indifference for the past few years.
Otero said he sympathized with Sauza and Zimmermann’s surviving family about the amount of time that has elapsed since Laurint’s initial court appearance but indicated that his office would not be swayed into unnecessary action by unflattering public opinion or media reports.
Instead, prosecutors remain committed to presenting a strong case in court and ensuring the rights of the defendant are honored as well, he said.
“That’s where our arena is and where we hope to prevail,” Otero said. “We don’t try our cases in the public’s eye.”
Laurint is accused of fatally stabbing the 53-year-old Zimmermann inside a Golden West Motel room where both were discovered by police conducting a welfare check after Zimmermann was reported missing, El Centro police reported at the time.
Laurint, who was 49 years old at the time of the incident, was subsequently hospitalized for apparent stab wounds and later arrested for the alleged murder at a San Diego hospital where he was recovering, El Centro police had reported.
The case against Laurint has proceeded at the pace it has because of developments that have largely been out of the agency’s control, Otero said.
Initially, the criminal case was paused while the county Superior Court convened a separate civil case in September 2018 at the defense attorney’s request to determine if Laurint was competent to stand trial.
A month later, a jury determined that Laurint was indeed competent to stand trial, after hearing testimony from several mental health professionals who had interviewed him while he was in custody.
Following the conclusion of the civil court proceedings, the resumption of the criminal case was further slowed by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Otero said.
“It’s very difficult to try to rush when we have no control over what’s going on around us,” he said.
Amid the pandemic, the court has also struggled to convene jury trials, and has had to pause for two weeks on a couple separate occasions after jurors or court personnel were required to quarantine in response to a potential COVID-19 exposure, Otero said.
On Monday, Sauza said that Zimmermann’s husband had provided Sauza with his blessing to stage a protest of the murder case’s perceived delays. Sauza further stated that Zimmermann’s husband had been experiencing difficulty in getting updates about the case from the DA’s Office in recent months.
As a longtime local advocate of sexual assault and rape victims, Sauza has not been shy about her low opinion of Otero’s professionalism and competency, often going before local city councils and the Imperial County Board of Supervisors to her voice her concerns.
Aside from the perceived delays in the Zimmermann case, Sauza had additional criticism of the DA’s Office’s handling of two other alleged incidents of sexual assault against women that she said the agency had been slow to investigate and prosecute.
“People are not getting justice,” Sauza said on Feb. 15.
In response to Sauza’s previous and renewed criticism of his job, Otero clarified that prosecutors have different standards that determine whether charges will be filed against an individual in comparison to the standards police often rely on to make an arrest.
Prosecutors typically will refrain from filing charges in the absence of evidence that can prove a person’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, he said.
“The average citizen is not familiar with that,” Otero said.