Central Valley

Did a Merced County lawyer fall asleep during a murder trial — and admit to mental illness?

Defense attorney Dominic Falasco speaks at a candidate forum Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, at Merced College Los Banos Campus while running for re-election to the Los Banos Unified School District. Falasco is denying allegations he solicited sex in lieu of payment for legal services.
Defense attorney Dominic Falasco speaks at a candidate forum Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, at Merced College Los Banos Campus while running for re-election to the Los Banos Unified School District. Falasco is denying allegations he solicited sex in lieu of payment for legal services. vshanker@losbanosenterprise.com

Embattled Merced County attorney and key corruption trial witness Dominic Falasco wrote in an August letter addressed to the State Bar that he has been mentally and emotionally unfit to represent his Merced County clients for the past several years, and that he sought to relinquish his law license.

But when the letter was presented to prosecutors during his client’s double murder trial last month, Falasco, 51, told court officials that the letter was never sent to the State Bar, and that it was a ruse to appease his wife and reconcile his failing marriage, according to a court transcript.

That was about a week after a juror, prosecutors and a judge said they noticed Falasco appear to fall asleep during the jury selection process for the trial, leading to a hearing about whether Falasco was fit to represent his client, Jose Hernandez.

Hernandez and co-defendant David Zamora were found guilty of two counts of murder by a Merced County Superior Court jury on Sept. 5.

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Dominic Falasco, 51, of Los Banos, was arrested Wednesday, April, 18, 2018, on suspicion of spouse abuse stemming from a April 16, 2018, domestic violence incident. Falasco is a prominent defense attorney in Merced County and is a former Los Banos Unified School District board member. Courtesy Merced County Sheriff's Office

The letter is the latest in a series of troubles for Falasco, which include admitting to

possessing methamphetamine

, being sued for

allegedly soliciting sex from a client’s girlfriend

in exchange for his services and having his law license suspended for two weeks for failure to pay child support.

Falasco, a prominent local defense attorney for the past 25 years, has taken on dozens of clients and more than 150 cases in Merced County, according to court records. Many of his clients were indigent defendants who had conflicts with the Merced County Public Defender’s Office and were appointed Falasco’s representation.

Falasco also is a key witness in a public corruption case.

When he was a Los Banos Unified School District board member in 2015 and 2016, Falasco worked with the Merced County District Attorney’s Office to surreptitiously record conversations between himself, Merced contractor Gregory Opinski and fellow former board member Tommy Jones, according to the Merced County District Attorney’s Office’s investigation.

Opinski and Jones allegedly bribed Falasco with $12,000 for his votes on the school board, according to documents from the investigation.

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Dominic Falasco Vikaas Shanker vshanker@losbanosenterprise.com

The undercover investigation included audio and video recordings, and led to felony bribery charges against Opinski and Jones, who have pleaded not guilty. Opinski and Jones’ trial has

been delayed to next year as their lawyers contested the validity of the recordings and questioned Falasco’s credibility as a witness

.

When asked how Falasco’s letter impacts the corruption case, Supervising Deputy District Attorney Nicole Silveira said she had no comment, noting that a judge had ordered her not to discuss the letter.

Falasco’s letter to the State Bar, which bears Falasco’s law office letterhead, dated July 24, states Falasco regretfully tenders his resignation from practicing law in California and surrenders his license, effective Aug. 1, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Sun-Star.

“It has become clear to me, with the help of my wife, that given my mental and emotional instability I am teetering on the brink of being unfit for the rigors, requirements and demands needed to practice law competently and effectively for much longer,” the letter states, adding it will hurt his clients if he doesn’t step away from practicing law.

“I finally see that my wife has been right when she has told me for the past several years that I am plagued with issues which effect (sic) my ability to practice law with any competence,” the letter states, adding that he suffers “from a myriad of untreated mental illnesses which if not attended to immediately will undoubtedly effect (sic) one or more clients to their detriment.”

The letter states Falasco’s last day practicing law would be July 31, and that “It was a truly rewarding experience but alas, an experience that I am no longer capable of performing.”

The letter was taken into the court’s record and sealed by Merced County Judge Ronald Hansen on Aug. 21 during the double murder trial, according to a court transcript of the proceedings. The letter was sent to the District Attorney’s Office the day before.

Shortly after sealing the document, Hansen opened a hearing on whether the letter was subject to marital privilege and couldn’t be disseminated to anyone else.

Falasco, who under oath admitted writing the letter, said the only person he gave it to was his wife. He also said his wife during a conversation with him implied that she had talked with Kevin Little, Jones’ attorney in the public corruption case.

When asked why he wrote the letter, Falasco said he was trying to convince his wife to come back home.

“I was trying to convince her that things are worse off than they were so that she would feel that she was needed at home and would come back home,” Falasco said, according to court records. Falasco said he had the understanding that communication between him and his wife would remain confidential.

Messages to Falasco’s wife seeking comment were not returned Thursday.

Falasco said he never sent the letter to the State Bar and that he shredded it after sending a copy to his wife, the transcript states. He claimed he was under a lot of pressure at work and home, but the statements in the letter were greatly exaggerated.

He also told Hansen he was mentally and emotionally fit to represent Hernandez in the trial.

The State Bar doesn’t have a voluntary letter of license renunciation from Falasco, according to spokesperson Jonah Lamb. But the State Bar doesn’t confirm any letters or information that may be a part of any investigation into an attorney.

Lamb said he couldn’t confirm if there was or wasn’t an investigation into Falasco, who has previously told the Sun-Star he was cleared in a past investigation into claims against him.

State Bar officials declined to comment on Falasco using the State Bar as a ruse to repair his marriage.

“This isn’t something that we’ll be able to weigh in on,” spokesperson Rebecca Farmer said in an email.

Hansen ruled that the letter was protected by marital privilege, and ordered all attorneys not to discuss or disseminate the letter.

When contacted by the Sun-Star to talk about the letter, Falasco declined to comment and emphasized the letter was confidential.

Falling asleep in court?

Six days before that murder trial hearing, Falasco was questioned for allegedly sleeping during jury selection.

During an Aug. 15 hearing for the same trial, Hansen opened a hearing on whether Falasco’s client wanted a change in representation, a mistrial or any other action after a juror noticed Falasco was sleeping during the previous day’s jury selection process, according to court transcripts.

Hansen said he noticed Falasco close his eyes and bob his head during portions of the previous hearing, transcripts state.

“I was not falling asleep,” Falasco said to Hansen, according to the transcript. “I was listening to the (juror preliminary examination) that was going on. I did have my eyes closed. I do that occasionally when I’m trying to listen, especially when I’m struggling to hear some of the stuff. It’s just a habit I’ve got.”

Falasco also said he was having a tough time emotionally that day due to personal issues.

“I’ve been having trouble going to sleep lately more so than staying awake,” he said, according to the court transcripts.

When Falasco’s client was asked if he wants any action taken, he declined and stated he didn’t want a change in counsel, according to transcripts.

However, Silveira, who prosecuted the double murder trial along with Deputy District Attorney Katie Gates, noted that Hernandez made a comment the previous day suggesting concern for Falasco.

Silveira, a supervising deputy district attorney, told Hansen she was concerned that Falasco’s bobbing could create a legitimate concern if a conviction or other outcome is appealed, transcripts state.

In addition to Silveira, Hansen, Hernandez and the juror, others also reportedly saw signs that Falasco was dozing off, including Gates and co-defendant Zamora’s attorney, Jeffrey Tenenbaum, according to transcripts.

Later in the day during jury selection, Silveira said she noted Falasco exhibiting similar behavior during the morning hearing even after he was accused of sleeping, the transcript states. According to Silveira’s count, it was “eight times in 20 minutes,” and she reiterated her concerns of Hernandez receiving proper representation.

However, Hansen ruled Falasco could continue representing Hernandez because he couldn’t definitively know if Falasco was falling asleep. The judge said Falasco seemed coherent in his objections and actions during jury selection — and Hernandez, knowing his rights, didn’t request any action, according to the transcript.

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