Marion County DA drops reckless-driving case after a prosecutor calls defendant ‘drunk Hispanic guy’

This story was originally published by the Oregonian/OregonLive and is reprinted with permission.

A Marion County deputy district attorney referred to a criminal defendant as a “drunk Hispanic guy” in a discussion with the man’s lawyer, leading the county’s top prosecutor to dismiss the case later that day, according to the defense lawyer and public records.

Deputy District Attorney Mae D’Amico made the remark March 2 in Marion County Circuit Judge Courtland Geyer’s courtroom, said Salem attorney John Knodell, who represented Favio Luna Mondragon, 30, of Salem. Geyer was not present for the conversation. Mondragon was scheduled to go to trial March 17.

Court records show Mondragon faced four misdemeanors — driving under the influence of intoxicants, reckless driving and two counts of fourth-degree assault — related to two separate incidents in 2022, one on Feb. 5 and another on March 4.

Knodell said he and D’Amico were waiting to be called to Geyer’s chambers to update the judge on the status of the case. He said they were in the jury box discussing the circumstances of the allegations against Mondragon, and Knodell pointed out what he viewed as weaknesses in the state’s case.

He said he “started listing off the evidence” that showed his client was innocent.

“Her response to that was he’s a drunk Hispanic guy,” Knodell told The Oregonian/OregonLive in an interview this week.

“I was just kind of shocked,” said Knodell, a former Marion County prosecutor.

He said another defense lawyer challenged D’Amico over the remark, and Knodell said D’Amico said, “Well, they have machismo,” apparently referring to Latino men.

Knodell said he walked away and prepared for the meeting with the judge.

When the conference ended, he said he returned to his client, who was waiting in the hallway. Mondragon asked him what the prosecutor said about the charges.

Knodell said he was obligated to tell his client about D’Amico’s characterization.

“She thinks you’re a drunk Hispanic guy,” he said he told Mondragon.

Mondragon said in an interview that he was upset by the remark.

“It just makes you not believe in the judicial system,” said Mondragon, who works in construction and in the summer is a wildland firefighter.

Tony DeFalco, executive director of the Latino Network, the state’s premier Latino advocacy organization, said he suspects such incidents aren’t isolated and he hopes the DA’s response includes a broader review of her office.

“We are not surprised,” he said. “In our community, we have come to expect that kind of disparate treatment.”

Knodell said he reported the matter to the Marion County District Attorney’s Office early that afternoon.

D’Amico has been a prosecutor since 2021, according to her LinkedIn profile. She has been with the Marion County District Attorney’s Office for about a year, county records show. Oregon State Bar records show she was admitted to the Oregon bar in 2020. Her salary is $90,188.

D’Amico did not respond to an email or text seeking comment.

Knodell said he also asked Deputy District Attorney Braden Wolf to review what Knodell thought was evidence showing his client was not guilty of driving under the influence of alcohol and reckless driving.

“I was concerned she was not giving proper consideration to what I had provided her because of my client’s ethnicity,” he said.

He said he then had a follow-up phone call with Wolf to go over D’Amico’s remark.

Court records show Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson’s office filed a motion to dismiss the case “in the interest of justice” the same day D’Amico made the remark.

Four days later, Clarkson wrote a letter to Marion County Presiding Judge Tracy Prall, as well as to the leaders of the Marion County Public Defender’s Office and the Marion County Association of Defense Attorneys, making them aware that a prosecutor in her office was “alleged to have made a comment regarding a defendant’s race at a status conference.”

Clarkson did not identify D’Amico in her letter. She wrote that she had placed the attorney on administrative leave pending a Marion County Human Resources inquiry. Knodell said he was later interviewed by county officials about the matter.

Knodell said he assumes Clarkson addressed D’Amico’s remark internally since the prosecutor was placed on administrative leave. “We are satisfied with that,” he said.

“All of my other interactions with her have been professional and courteous,” he said of D’Amico.

In a statement to the news organization Tuesday, Clarkson said her decision to place the prosecutor on leave and notify the presiding judge “stand as clear evidence of how seriously we respond to even a mere accusation of racial insensitivity or bias.”

“My unilateral and unequivocal dismissal of the misdemeanor case is a further reflection of my commitment to integrity and belief in being fair to everyone,” she wrote.

She said her actions were not a “comment on the factual findings about what happened nor the context in which it occurred. Rather, the swift and significant response is the strongest statement I could make about how important transparency and equity is to my office and our entire profession of prosecutors. Put simply, we are committed to doing the right thing.”

“As prosecutors we strive daily to use our words in just and honest ways,” she wrote. “I do not believe it was ever the intent of (D’Amico) to do anything other than that.”

D’Amico has since returned to work, though the Marion County Office of Legal Counsel declined to say Tuesday when her leave ended.

On May 5, Cinco de Mayo, D’Amico announced on her Facebook page that she had placed second in the office salsa recipe competition. In the accompanying photo, she holds a bowl in one hand and a ribbon in the other.

About 28% of Marion County residents are Latino, about twice the statewide average, according to the latest U.S. Census statistics.

The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, a criminal justice statistics clearinghouse, shows Latino men in Marion County are placed on felony probation and sent to prison at disproportionately higher rates when compared with the county’s Latino population.

According to the commission, 33.5% of men sentenced to probation in the county are Latino and 31% of men sent to prison from the county are Latino.

The commission’s analysis shows a similar disparity for Black men in Marion County. The figures mirror statewide trends; both groups are disproportionately represented in Oregon’s probation and parole systems and in prison, figures show.

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Noelle Crombie; [email protected]; 503-276-7184; @noellecrombie