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Charles Podaras

Other Assault Exonerations with Perjury or False Accusation
On November 15, 2004, 46-year-old Charles "Chuck" Podaras was walking his dog at a dog park at La Entrada Middle School in Menlo Park, California when 47-year-old Dennis Hatfield, a school maintenance engineer, became angry because Hatfield believed Podaras’s dog was acting aggressively.

Podaras later claimed that Hatfield picked up his dog, Emerson, by his collar, suspending and choking the dog. Podaras claimed that Hatfield, who was six feet tall and weighed nearly 300 pounds, refused to let the dog go until Podaras, who was about the same height but weighed 50 pounds less, shoved Hatfield.

Both men called 911 and officer Burke Bruttig responded. After interviewing Hatfield and bystanders, Bruttig arrested Podaras, who was subsequently charged with two counts of misdemeanor assault.

Podaras went to trial in San Mateo County Superior Court in October 2005. On the day of trial, the prosecution disclosed 911 tapes as well as recordings of interviews that officer Bruttig conducted with witnesses. Because of the late disclosure and the poor quality of some of the recordings, the judge barred presentation of all but a small snippet of a 911 call made by Hatfield.

Bruttig testified that when he arrived at the scene, Hatfield told him that Podaras had choked him.

Hatfield testified that Podaras’s dog was nipping at Ozzy, a dog in Hatfield’s care. When the 50-pound Emerson began to growl, he lifted him off the ground by his collar. Hatfield said that Podaras came over and yelled obscenities. He then grabbed him by the shirt and lifted him onto his toes for 30 seconds. Hatfield also testified that he called 911 once.

The police officer testified that Hatfield said Podaras had choked him, but Hatfield testified that he never said Podaras choked him. Hatfield's assertion was consistent with notes the officer had taken at the scene, which recorded Hatfield's statement and made no mention of choking.

Linda Bleich testified that she was at the dog park at the time and that she saw Podaras put his hands on Hatfield’s shoulders or neck and shake Hatfield. Podaras’s defense attorney asked the trial judge to allow a portion of the 911 tapes into evidence during which Bleich was heard to say, “I didn’t see what happened,” but the judge denied that request.

Janet Davis, who was there walking her dog, testified that she saw Podaras shaking Hatfield. She said that Hatfield was not holding up a dog at the time.

Laurel Crittendon, another woman at the dog park, testified that Janet Davis was not in the park at the time of the incident and did not come into the area until Podaras was leaving with Emerson.

Podaras testified and denied choking or lifting Hatfield, noting that he was smaller than Hatfield who was also holding a 50-pound dog. Podaras said that he was concerned that Hatfield was hurting Emerson. When Hatfield refused to put the dog down—instead repeatedly saying he was going to “smack” Podaras—Podaras pushed Hatfield, who turned away and pulled the dog with him. Podaras said he grabbed Hatfield’s shirt and pulled him, and Hatfield let go of the dog. Podaras said he saw and heard Hatfield call 911 twice.

A veterinarian testified that Podaras’s dog's neck was permanently damaged. As a result, the dog had difficulty swallowing and drinking.

During closing argument, deputy district attorney Brian Donnellan argued that Hatfield only made one 911 call, which suggested that Podaras was testifying falsely. Donnellan knew, however, that Hatfield had in fact made two 911 calls.

On October 14, 2005, the jury convicted Podaras of two counts of misdemeanor assault.

Podaras hired a new attorney, Marc Zilversmit, who filed a motion for a new trial. Podaras’s trial defense attorney, Diane de Seve, filed a sworn affidavit saying that after Hatfield asserted he only called 911 once, she approached the prosecutor, Donnellan, to seek his help “in clearing up this false testimony. Mr. Donnellan shrugged.” The jury did not hear Hatfield's first, nearly five-minute long 911 call, however, because the judge had barred the 911 calls.

De Seve also stated that on that excluded 911 call, a woman could be heard in the background saying, “I didn’t see what happened.” Until Linda Bleich testified, de Seve said she did not know who the speaker was. But after Bleich testified that she saw Podaras attack Hatfield, de Seve said she realized that Bleich was the woman on the call professing not to have seen the incident. In addition, a recording of officer Bruttig’s interview with Hatfield—when finally transcribed after trial—showed that Hatfield never said Podaras choked him.

The motion for new trial was denied and Podaras was sentenced to 10 days in the San Mateo County Jail.

Zilversmit filed an appeal, arguing that the evidence about Hatfield's first 911 call should have been allowed. “The evidence…completely contradicted Bleich’s sworn testimony,” Zilversmit argued. In addition, he noted that it was “clear that prosecutor Donnellan was aware of…false testimony by Hatfield, and did nothing to correct it.”

Zilversmit also claimed the trial judge had erroneously failed to give the jury an instruction on self-defense. “Here there was substantial evidence presented that the defendant acted in self-defense,” Zilversmit argued. The evidence was that Hatfield was repeatedly saying he was going to “smack” Podaras and that Podaras testified that he was intimidated by the physically larger Hatfield.

In September 2006, the San Mateo County Superior Court Appellate Department reversed Podaras’s convictions and ordered a new trial. The court held that Podaras was entitled to a jury instruction on self-defense. On November 9, 2006, the prosecution dismissed the charges.

Podaras later filed a petition seeking a finding of factual Innocence. During that proceeding, the prosecution revealed contents from Bruttig's original police incident report that indicated the report was edited to remove language favorable to Podaras. The request for factual innocence was denied on procedural grounds. Podaras later filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Menlo Park, the prosecutor, and the police officer, but it was dismissed because it was filed too late due to the passage of time before Podaras learned that the report had been edited.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 5/3/2017
County:San Mateo
Most Serious Crime:Assault
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2004
Sentence:10 days
Age at the date of reported crime:46
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No