The Humboldt County Public Defender's Office has begun a review of all cases it has handled involving sheriff's deputy Maxwell Soeth after a recent North Coast Journal story raised questions about his honesty and credibility.
"The concern on our part would be that people have criminal records that shouldn't because of a cop who's known to be untruthful," said Public Defender Luke Brownfield.
On May 4, the Journal published "The Soeth Files" after a years-long investigation into Soeth's conduct stretching back to his days as a Fortuna police officer. The story looked at questionable tactical decisions in two shootings — one in which Soeth killed a 26-year-old man and another in which he opened fire on a security guard near Weitchpec — and a police dog bite case. During investigations of each incident, records released to the Journal show the version of events that Soeth subsequently relayed to investigators or wrote in his report conflicted in key ways with the accounts of other officers and witnesses or physical evidence in the case. In each instance, Soeth's version of events would have put his actions more in line within departmental policy than the facts of the case suggested, raising questions about his credibility.
"It puts into question every conviction he's been a part of, and it should," Brownfield said of the Journal's coverage. "If you have a cop who's lying in internal investigations, who knows what else he's been lying about."
Since the story was published, Brownfield said the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office has dismissed two cases involving Soeth without explanation, saying when deputy public defenders appeared in court on assigned dates, they were simply told the cases had been dismissed on the prosecutor's motion. Additionally, Brownfield said his office has already found four other cases involving Soeth that he plans to ask District Attorney Stacey Eads to dismiss. If she declines, Brownfield said his office will contact the California Attorney General's Office for advice on how to proceed, adding it will likely file motions seeking dismissal with the court.
Brownfield said the review began with looking at the cases of anyone who was currently in custody — either in the county jail or state prison — in a case in which Soeth was the arresting officer or a witness.
"We haven't found anybody, which is good," he said.
But that was just the start, Brownfield said, adding that his department is taking an all-hands-on-deck approach, asking each of its deputy public defenders to review their files in the office's case management system to find past cases involving Soeth as a witness or arresting officer. He said cases in which clients were convicted or entered into plea agreements need to be reviewed and the clients contacted.
"We have to talk to the clients and see if they want to go through with opening this all back up," he said, adding that some may want to withdraw pleas or appeal convictions.
Brownfield said his office has also begun to review evasion and resisting arrest cases to find any involving Soeth, adding those often hinge on an officer's word.
The review, Brownfield said, is necessary to fulfill the office's obligation to its clients, though it is a heavy lift.
"It creates a lot of work," he said, adding that it's being undertaken primarily by deputy public attorneys in addition to their regular caseloads.
After publishing "The Soeth Files," the Journal asked Eads whether she felt the story or its findings impacted her office's ability to call Soeth as a witness. She did not answer directly.
"What I can share is that generally speaking any media coverage regarding specific cases and/or witnesses can impact a case," Eads wrote in an email to the Journal, adding that media coverage could lead potential jurors to have "preconceived beliefs" that would impact their ability to be fair and impartial.
"Moreover," Eads continued, "well in advance of trial, prosecutors must ascertain whether a particular case is provable beyond a reasonable doubt — a process that necessarily involves assessing the evidence, including the accounts and credibility of witnesses. In making such an assessment, we must consider information that is relevant, material and potentially admissible evidence. We may take into consideration a variety of factors depending on the circumstances, such as conflicting statements among witnesses or involved parties, acts of moral turpitude, presence of corroborating evidence or lack thereof, motive, etc. The source of this information may be beyond what is contained in a specific law enforcement report. The analysis is done on a case-by-case basis."
In addition to raising questions about whether Soeth's actions escalated three critical incidents, the Journal's investigation suggested Soeth had been dishonest when recounting the events to investigators or in written reports.
After fatally shooting Jacob Newmaker on March 16, 2012, Soeth's version of events changed over time, ultimately landing on one suggested to him by an investigator in the case: that he first shot Newmaker as he swung a metal baton at a fellow officer's head, and then again as the suspect attempted to get back to his feet. Autopsy results in the case, however, show Newmaker was shot twice in the back, with both bullets entering his lower back and traveling upward through his body, contradicting Soeth's account.
After he and a fellow deputy opened fire on George Richard Robbins III, a security guard watching over a construction site near Martin's Ferry Bridge on July 14, 2017, when the man brandished a gun at them, Soeth told investigators he'd identified himself as a police officer and ordered Robbins to put down the weapon before opening fire. Two other deputies on scene and Robbins, however, told investigators Soeth had opened fire without identification or warning.
After Soeth had his police dog bite a suspect being restrained on the ground by five other officers during an April 4, 2020, traffic stop, Soeth's written report of the incident omitted the fact he'd punched the suspect multiple times in the ribs prior to deploying the canine. Additionally, Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal would later say, the report made it sound like Soeth was "wrestling with the driver alone" when the dog was ordered to bite. And while Soeth later told investigators he perceived the driver to be a threat, other officers described them as "lackadaisical," "overly relaxed" and not "trying to fight us."
Soeth was stripped of his canine handling assignment and assigned to bailiff duties at the Humboldt County Courthouse in 2021 after receiving a written reprimand for using unreasonable force in the dog bite case and getting a 60-hour suspension for an unrelated matter. But he later returned to patrol, where he remains today.
Reached May 22, Honsal said there has been no change to Soeth's status or assignment in the wake of the Journal's report. Informed of the review by the public defender's office and Brownfield's saying prosecutors have already dismissed cases involving the deputy, Honsal said it's up to the district attorney's office to determine how to proceed in filed cases or those under its review.
"That's their prerogative," he said. "The district attorney's office is going to do what they need to do in order to make sure the cases they file and proceed with are achievable."
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or email@example.com.
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