Federal prosecutors are rejecting claims of anti-Black bias in their criminal case against former Dodger Yasiel Puig, calling the allegations part of a last-ditch attempt to avoid trial — one that also included a “personal appeal” to the prosecutors’ boss with a request that it be kept secret.
At a news conference and in court filings, Puig’s attorneys have alleged federal prosecutors were “inclined to view Black men as untruthful” and treated white defendants in the investigation differently.
But in a court filing Wednesday, prosecutors vehemently denied the allegation and referred to it as a hollow “eleventh-hour assertion.” In the 40-page filing, Assistant U.S. Atty. Jeff Mitchell argued that Puig’s attorneys only brought up the accusation of bias after other attempts to avoid a trial failed.
Those attempts included a “private personal appeal” to Martin Estrada, U.S. attorney for the Central District of California and the boss of the federal prosecutors in Puig’s criminal case. In the Nov. 28 letter to Estrada, Puig’s attorney Keri Axel, a former federal prosecutor in Southern California, pushed for the case to be resolved in a diversion program, in which the criminal charges could be dismissed or reduced.
Axel also implored the U.S. attorney “to take a meeting, as there are things I can only say privately,” and asked Estrada not to notify the prosecutors on the case about the letter’s contents.
The letter is cited in court filings but is currently under seal.
Although, according to prosecutors, there had been three previous attempts to refer the case for diversion, the letter to Estrada was the first time Puig’s defense attorneys alleged “selective prosecution issues and the implicit biases of government agents,” they said.
According to court filings, Puig is accused of lying about his involvement and denying he placed bets with the gambling business, despite allegedly making 899 bets on games and incurring at one point a debt of more than $280,000.
Puig initially signed a plea agreement in July 2022 that could have resulted in a sentence of probation and no prison time if he’d pleaded guilty to a single charge of lying to federal agents. Despite the signed agreement, Puig’s attorneys made multiple requests to prosecutors for pretrial diversion, with the possibility for lesser charges or their dismissal.
Last year on Oct. 7, Nov. 17 and Nov. 22, Mitchell says, Puig’s attorneys asked for the diversion, citing Puig’s minimal education, ADHD, cultural background, and claims that he had been entrapped by investigators and targeted because of his “celebrity status.” None of those requests, prosecutors said, mentioned racial bias. All of them were denied.
Puig ultimately withdrew from his plea agreement and vowed to fight the charges at trial. After he refused to follow through with the plea agreement, federal prosecutors filed an additional charge of obstruction of justice.
Axel went on to allege in court filings and at a news conference that federal agents took an aggressive posture with Puig and other Black individuals connected to the investigation.
Federal officials deny the claim, and state in Wednesday’s filings that Puig “was treated fairly and the government’s charging decisions were not affected by race in any way.”
Axel maintains Black witnesses were treated differently.
“The government claims all witnesses were given an opportunity to correct,” she said, “but for Black men, they assumed they were initially lying while white men were generally given the benefit of the doubt about whether they were suffering from well-intentioned memory failures.”