Comments made by San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow to the media and on Facebook are being used as basis for a request to remove his office from the criminal case against an ex-Grover Beach police officer whose dog killed a neighbor.
Alex Geiger, of Visalia is facing three felony charges, two for allegedly failing to maintain control over a dangerous animal resulting in injury or death and involuntary manslaughter, related to the Dec. 13, 2016 mauling that killed 64-year-old David Fear and severely injured 86-year-old Betty Long.
On Tuesday, Geiger’s attorney filed a motion asking a Superior Court judge to remove the District Attorney’s Office from the case for “bias and prejudice,” based on comments he made to The Tribune that appeared in news articles as well as comments about the case to residents on Facebook.
This false (and) misleading statement was a clear attempt to contaminate the jury pool.
Melina Benninghoff, attorney for ex-Grover Beach police officer Alex Geiger
Geiger, 25, faces a maximum of four years in County Jail if convicted of all charges. His attorney, Madera-based Melina Benninghoff, did not respond to a request for comment late Wednesday.
Geiger worked for the Grover Beach Police Department for about four months before resigning in February, about two months after his dog — a police-trained Belgian Malinois named Neo — and another dog later deemed not to have been the aggressor broke free of Geiger’s backyard and mauled Fear. He had come to Long’s aid after she was initially attacked and died three days later from complications of blood loss due to bite injuries to his arms and torso.
The Beligian Malinois was later revealed to be Geiger’s former K-9 partner at a previous police department, and it had bitten the hand of a trainer there. It was euthanized the afternoon of the Grover Beach attack.
The District Attorney’s Office initially filed two charges of failing to maintain control over a dangerous animal in February, and added the manslaughter charge in June. A judge upheld all three charges in July and ordered Geiger to stand trial.
At the time, Dow told The Tribune that adding the manslaughter charge gave prosecutors more legal options to prosecute the case, even though it would not add to Geiger’s sentence if convicted on all three charges.
Dow said for the previous charges — failing to maintain control over a dangerous animal — Deputy District Attorney Stephen Wagner must prove simple negligence and that Geiger had knowledge of his dog’s propensity for violence. For involuntary manslaughter, Wagner has to prove gross negligence, a higher standard, but doesn’t have to prove that Geiger was aware the dog was dangerous, Dow said. He added that evidence supports all three charges.
But Geiger’s attorney claims Dow’s comments say otherwise.
In the motion filed Tuesday, Benninghoff wrote that Dow “demonstrated his lack of veracity and his inability to be impartial” to Geiger when his office filed the manslaughter charge months after Dow wrote on social media in February that “there is no evidence to support” the charge.
Manslaughter does not apply as it requires additional elements that there is no evidence to support.
San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow
In support of her argument, Benninghoff cites two Tribune articles.
In the first article reporting the two charges filed in February, Dow is quoted as saying his office did not find evidence of criminal negligence, which would be required for a charge of manslaughter. Dow echoed those statements in the comments section of a Facebook post of the article.
Dow’s Facebook post was in response to a comment that criticized his office for not adding an involuntary manslaughter charge.
“There is no other applicable charge as manslaughter does not apply as it requires additional elements that there is no evidence to support,” Dow wrote Feb. 2.
Geiger’s attorney also cites comments from Dow that appeared in a March 20 article saying that Geiger “knew the animal was dangerous,” which Benninghoff argues is not supported by any evidence.
“At a minimum, it is a false statement made illustrating DA Dow’s inability to honestly and impartially prosecute this case,” she wrote. “Alternatively, this false and/or misleading statement was a clear attempt to contaminate the jury pool.”
The DA’s Office has not filed a response. On Wednesday, Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham said Geiger’s motion “assumes that evidence is static” and ignores investigators’ efforts between February and June and a new prosecutor assigned the case in the meantime.
“In reality, the state of evidence is constantly in flux, there’s a constant evaluation process,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham added that his office sent the motion to the state Attorney General’s Office, which will file a response. He said the DA’s Office will refrain from responding until the state weighs in.
Geiger is currently scheduled to begin trial Jan. 16.