HARTFORD, Conn. — A Connecticut prosecutor is citing executive privilege in declining to answer questions about how he concluded there was no evidence of a 2014 homicide in the case of a lawyer who was found fatally shot in the head in a wrecked sport utility vehicle.
Danbury State’s Attorney Stephen Sedensky III invoked the privilege during a deposition in July in a lawsuit against Redding police officials over their handling of the investigation into the death of Gugsa Abraham “Abe” Dabela.
Police deny allegations in the lawsuit by Dabela’s father that they rushed to a judgment saying Dabela killed himself. The lawsuit also says police failed to adequately investigate Dabela’s death because he was black. Redding is a mostly white town. Dabela’s relatives believe he was murdered.
The state attorney general’s office, which is representing Sedensky, is now asking the federal judge handling the lawsuit to sustain Sedensky’s objections to answering some questions because of executive and other privileges, and to seal the transcript and video of his deposition from public view. Sedensky is not a defendant in the lawsuit.
Sedensky is invoking “deliberative process privilege,” also known as executive privilege, as well as attorney work product privilege and “mental process privilege,” according to court documents filed by Assistant Attorney General Stephen Sarnoski. The idea is that how prosecutors and other government officials arrive at conclusions is not public information.
“The deliberative process privilege … has been recognized by the Supreme Court as necessary to protect the integrity of the administrative process,” Sarnoski wrote, referring to the nation’s highest court.
A 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling said, “The deliberative process privilege rests on the obvious realization that officials will not communicate candidly among themselves if each remark is a potential item of discovery and front page news.” The court added that the object is to protect the quality of decision-making.
Executive privilege, perhaps, is best known for being used by U.S. presidents and their administrations in trying to prevent the release of internal communications. President Richard Nixon tried, and failed, to invoke it in an effort to block the release of White House recordings during the Watergate investigation.
Keith Altman, a lawyer for Dabela’s father, said Sedensky should explain how he concluded there was no evidence of a homicide.
“I don’t know how your guy can make a statement in public and then be immune from answering questions about it,” Altman said. “It’s not deliberative process to ask him to please tell me the evidence you considered when making your decision. I think the prosecutor looks absurd hiding behind all these things.”
Sedensky and Sarnoski, the assistant attorney general, declined to comment.
Dabela, 35, crashed his Mercedes SUV near his home in Redding shortly after 1:30 a.m. on April 5, 2014, and died of what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head, Redding police said. Dabela’s blood-alcohol level was nearly 2.5 times the legal limit, police said. The medical examiner’s office ruled his death a suicide.
Dabela’s family says many questions remain unanswered, including why Dabela’s DNA was not found on the gun’s trigger or the bullet that killed him, why there was a footprint on his back and why the body wasn’t tested for gunshot residue.
Police have said the gun found in Dabela’s vehicle was his, one bullet was missing from the ammunition magazine and a bullet found on the ground at the scene matched characteristics of a bullet later test fired from Dabela’s gun.