Family of Officer Richard May furious about leak

Defense attorneys release documents impugning May's personal and professional conduct, bypassing the court

The family of slain East Palo Police Officer Richard May -- including stepfather Frank Merrill of Atherton -- is outraged that the defense attorneys for May's convicted killer, Alberto Alvarez, have leaked documents to a reporter that try to impugn May's personal and professional character.

One relative called the leak a "despicable" act, coming soon after a San Mateo County jury unanimously recommended the death sentence for Alvarez immediately before Christmas.

Relatives of May told the Weekly Wednesday that a defense attorney had leaked documents to the press in an effort to damage May's character.

In pretrial motions, two separate judges had excluded information about an alleged October 2003 domestic dispute between May and his ex-wife that resulted in May's brief arrest and a restraining order. There is no record of any prosecution of the allegations.

A separate allegation of poor conduct while May was a Lompoc police officer was not presented during Alvarez's trial because it would have been inflammatory, Eric Liberman, one of Alvarez's two defense attorneys, said at the time.

Liberman later told the Weekly the defense attorneys plan to bring up professional allegations against May during the final sentencing hearing on Feb. 2. He said they hope the court's earlier preclusion of information about May's past will lead to the case being thrown out or a reduction of the sentence to life in prison.

But May's family and the district attorney are crying foul over the defense attorneys' tactics of leaking the documents to a reporter while not filing any motion in court and before providing any court motion to the prosecutor.

On or about Jan. 5, Charles Robinson, Alvarez's lead defense attorney, reportedly approached Palo Alto Daily News reporter Jessica Bernstein-Wax with the documents, according to Steve Wagstaffe, San Mateo County senior deputy district attorney. Frank Merrill, May's stepfather, told the Weekly he was also approached for comment about the documents by Bernstein-Wax.

Wagstaffe said the leaked information, as read to him by the reporter, appears to be a rehash of information the defense previously tried to get admitted into the trial, but it was rejected by two judges.

"It's an interesting way to practice law. I've never heard of defense attorneys sending a legal motion to a reporter without filing it with the court and first serving it to an attorney.

"It's part of what we do. When you send something, you file it with the court. Otherwise, it's just a press release," Wagstaffe said.

He called the information "very critical of a dead officer that in another circumstance, if the person was alive, would be defamatory."

Merrill called it "despicable" for the attorneys to leak the information after a conviction and sentence that was not in their client's favor.

He said the 2003 argument involving May's ex-wife, Sarah Rivera, who was divorced from May in 1993, was witnessed by May's current wife, Diana, and May's mother. The women tried to call a police officer by cell phone, but the call was dropped. The officer, believing May's mother hung up on him, decided to believe the ex-wife's story, Merrill said.

Of allegations relating May's record as a police officer in Lompoc, Calif., Merrill said, "There is nothing there. It's just more of their defense claiming he was a rogue, violent cop."

Robinson, when asked for copies of the documents by the Weekly, said he was not sure he could provide them.

"I've just put them away. I'll have to see if I can dig them out," he said. He later said in an e-mail that he had purged the documents from his computer after copying them to a DVD and putting it with information to be stored.

He said he could not again get to the information until late Thursday or Friday.

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by Jay Gertridge
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jan 7, 2010 at 11:50 am

Apparently, our judicial system is not good enough for Robinson and Lieberman. Regardless next month's final sentencing of Life without parole or death, these two attorneys have breached the legal ethics code and should be reprimanded.

Superman lived in our community.
Four years ago, Officer Richard May, was shot and killed in East Palo Alto while performing his pledged duty to serve and protect. Sadly, for all of us who believe in good and strive to instill values in our children that will help them choose between right and wrong, we have lost a special local citizen, unselfish public servant, loving son, brother, father, friend and role model. I am grateful that I had the good fortune to know Rich from the time he was only 7-1/2 years old and had been able to see him mature into such a wonderful, productive adult. Those of us who were lucky enough to know Rich personally, were never fooled by his “Clark Kent “ mild-mannered nature — we knew all along he was Superman. On January 7, 2006, he revealed his true identity to the rest of the community.

Like this comment
Posted by Kerry
a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge
on Jan 7, 2010 at 2:02 pm

I was a possible juror on this but was dismissed by the defense because I was gunning for the death penalty and told the court room so. Leave this poor officer, and his family, alone. The scum bag got what he absolutely deserved. And I am proud to say that I told it to his face, basically. He claimed he was "defending" himself. Defending yourself from an officer? That's called putting your hands up, following orders, and sorting the situation out. I was disgusted with the stuff I heard. I'm so sorry for May family. My best wishes to his wife and children.

Like this comment
Posted by Scholar
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jan 7, 2010 at 5:08 pm

Defense attorneys tried to put a crack into a perception, making the officer appear as a flawed human rather than flawless or above any error. Observers can assert that the prohibition from the courtroom of facts supporting that is just or unjust, depending on what side they're on. Banning facts from a courtroom cuts both ways, and can be in favor of or not in favor of a party on one side or the other, but it is in the community where leaked information will have an impact and will perhaps bleed into a final sentencing or affect an appeal. Whom would you want defending you?

Like this comment
Posted by Sam Sinnott
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 7, 2010 at 5:40 pm

Robinson and Lieberman were hired to defend Alvarez and they did everything they could possibly have done during the trial and sentencing. In spite of their efforts Alvarez was quickly convicted and sentenced to death because he was guilty of this heinous crime.

The Richard May Foundation is currently planning a new, full size athletic field on Bay Road as an after school altenative for the youth of East Palo Alto. It commemorates the sacrifice of Rich May and other fallen officers and may help other kids avoid becoming cop killers.

Robinson and Lieberman must belive that spreading defamatory allegations about a dead police officer in the press will give them some small advantage in court. In their zeal to win, they have crossed moral and ethical bounds and may be undermining our efforts to create this new facility.

For those in the court of public opinion who believe the behavior of these attorneys is wrong and want to see some good come out of this tragedy please make a donation for the construction of the field to the Rich May Foundation at

Like this comment
Posted by Observer
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jan 7, 2010 at 7:35 pm

A few years ago The Almanac sent out a questionaire regarding readers' opinions comparing the Palo Alto Daily News with The Palo Alto Weekly and its sister publications. In reality, at that time, there was NO comparison. One is a sleazy scab-sheet and the other is a valued neighborhood newspaper. Apparently that has changed now. How could the supposedly ethical Almanac print an article like this? Why would they repeat the disgusting, unethical and irrelevant allegations against the late Officer May? The sickening defense attorneys are crawling only a half-pace below the Almanac journalists on this one. That article should never have been printed! When the public is through being aghast at such lowly lawyer behavior, they'll realize that the Almanac is playing the same publicity game. It should be ashamed!

Like this comment
Posted by Irony
a resident of Atherton: West of Alameda
on Jan 7, 2010 at 10:47 pm

If Stephen Wagstaffe thinks it's inappropriate to bring up the fact that May was arrested for a domestic violence incident, he really needs to either start eating his own cooking or reevaluate the policies he's created that force police officers to always arrest the man when 911 is called over a domestic dispute (notwithstanding the real facts of the situation). Anyway, as Scholar said, Alvarez is entitled under our legal system to the best and most aggressive defense there is. Be careful about arguing that lawyers can only go so far in defending someone, as that someone could be you at some point. Naturally May's family feels aggrieved, and this is totally understandable, but the remedy really can't be prohibiting aggressive defenses.

Like this comment
Posted by Interested
a resident of another community
on Jan 8, 2010 at 1:10 am

Sorry Observer I could not disagree with you more. If the Almanac had not reported this update on the original story there would be just as many (if not more)people decrying the failure of the Almanac.

Why these attorneys released this information is beyond me. I can think of no purpose it will serve other than to smear the name of the Officer. It cannot serve Alvarez in any way that I can see.

Like this comment
Posted by Lost
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 8, 2010 at 7:05 am

I don't get the relevance. Even if May was a total jerk in his private life, how does that somehow lessen being executed by a dope dealing Sac Street gangsgter? Smoke and mirrors, and a way to suck more money from the tax payer with appeal after appeal after appeal. Even if May was not perfect, he died trying to protect us from these cretins. I can't imagine being shot by someone like Alvarez, then laying wounded and in pain only to be finished off with a head shot by him. Don't buy into this red herring.

Like this comment
Posted by Lancaster
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jan 8, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Observer doesn't want to read the news. The Almanac is merely reporting what happened in a public court of law. Observer is saying that the Almanac should withhold information that is on the public record. I'd rather have the whole story, and make up my own mind about what is relevant. (And I feel May's past is irrelevant to the fatal shooting.)

Observer also misquoted a very dubious survey the Almanac did.

Like this comment
Posted by Joy Koso
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jan 9, 2010 at 11:52 pm

Somehow I missed the article referenced. But from what I've read, I am very disappointed with the defense attorneys. My sympathies to the May family.

Like this comment
Posted by Relevance
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jan 10, 2010 at 12:45 am

The argument the defense attorneys are making is that if Mr. May was aggressive in other aspects of his life, it can lend more possible credence to Mr. Alvarez's argument that he was cornered by an aggressive Mr. May, and thus perhaps he shouldn't get the death penalty. It is extremely unlikely that it will be successful. Nevertheless, the defense attorneys are simply doing their job: do whatever they can to defend their client, within the bounds of the law, and this argument is certainly not illegal. As irony pointed out, our society and perhaps San Mateo county in particular, has practices that sometimes can result in the stigmatization of men based on domestic violence allegations of women, even those that cannot be substantiated. I'm sure no one ever thought they would be used as defenses to murder.

As others have pointed out, victims and families of victims always are aggrieved, and legitimately so, when perpetrators are defended, particularly if the defense involves attacking the victim. There is no alternative that can possibly make sense (such as: the attorneys can't bring stuff up the victim or victim's family doesn't like) so it simply needs to be chalked up as collateral damage of our imperfect legal system, which (as Winston Churchill said about democracy) is the worst possible system there is until you consider any other. The Almanac reporting on this is not inappropriate whatsoever. My sympathies also to the May family.

Like this comment
Posted by Interested
a resident of another community
on Jan 10, 2010 at 1:50 am

I have a question. If this defense was not permitted during the trial, but is permitted during sentencing, could that be used in an appeal?

Like this comment
Posted by Interested
a resident of another community
on Jan 10, 2010 at 1:51 am

or to be more specific, could it be grounds for appeal?

Like this comment
Posted by to above comments
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jan 11, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Since the info was obtained via a "leak", it didn't sound like it came out during the trial, or some other legitimate venue. That is what made is sound so objectionable.

Like this comment
Posted by Rich's Cousin
a resident of another community
on Jan 11, 2010 at 7:13 pm

Dear Sue Dremann and The Almanc,

I cannot believe your poor taste in publishing this at all, much less ON the 4 year anniversary of Rich's death. I don't understand why this is even considered newsworthy. It was not allowed during trial for a reason and has no place in the public forum either. His Wife, Mother, Sister, Father, etc. have enough pain without this.

I happen to have been blessed with having Rich as my cousin, and he was an oustanding human being in every way. Our family and his community have lost an incredibly selfless and kind member at the hands of human trash that should not get any more of our tax dollars for his "defense" - there is none for what he did.

Maybe a course on Ethics in Journalism and fair reporting would be helpful in the future. Even some common sense could have been employed.

Like this comment
Posted by Interested
a resident of another community
on Jan 12, 2010 at 8:38 am

I am sorry for your loss. That said, it is not the purpose of the Almanac to protect your family from hurt feelings. Officer May died in the line of duty, he is entitled to the utmost respect. I think I can say on behalf of all that he has, and will always have that respect.

The function of the Almanac is to report the news, the good, the bad, the ugly. And there can be no doubt that the attempt to smear Officer May by the defense attorneys is nothing but ugly. But it is also news.

I would suggest that rather than berate the Almanac for reporting this story, efforts would be better spent complaining to the State Bar Association about the disgraceful attempts to smear Officer Mays name. I will be happy to contribute to the efforts by his family to provide a permanent memorial to his name and service and by so doing join him in helping those he worked so hard to protect.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

Contemporary Indian restaurant, Ettan, headed to Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 5 comments | 6,281 views

Good News: The New Menlo Park Rail Subcommittee Hits A Home Run
By Dana Hendrickson | 12 comments | 1,753 views

Premarital and Couples: Tips for Hearing (Listening) and Being Known
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,513 views

Two degrees can do all that?
By Sherry Listgarten | 17 comments | 1,271 views

Tame, Maim and Claim the Wild Sea Vegetable
By Laura Stec | 9 comments | 748 views


Register today!

On Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

Learn More