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After a game of racquetball one evening more than 18 years ago, prosecutor Ronald Bass dropped by the Waterfront Bar and Restaurant in downtown Eureka for drinks and appetizers. Bass, then a deputy attorney general, was prosecuting Curtis Price in Humboldt County Superior Court for murdering a man and a woman six days, and 650 miles, apart in 1983. The Waterfront, not far from the courthouse, was the hangout of choice for local attorneys, but it also was the workplace of Zetta Southworth, a cook who was a juror on the Price case. What occurred that evening — and no one recalls the exact date — varies depending on who’s talking. Suffice it to say that the Price case is now back before the California Supreme Court on allegations that Bass tried to bribe Southworth for a guilty vote. Price, now in his late 50s, was sentenced to death on July 10, 1986. Ten months ago, the court ordered the state to explain why Price’s death sentence shouldn’t be overturned, and last week both sides completed their briefing. But if the court had hoped for clarity, what it got instead was competing drinking tales. The three main witnesses — Bass, his racquetball partner Geraldine “Geri” Johnson and bartender Robert McConkey — were either drunk or drinking, and offered distinctly different versions of what went on that night. Southworth, the juror, can’t weigh in because she died in 1989. Gena Eichenberg, a former president of the Humboldt County Bar Association, has provided a declaration that says McConkey, a longtime friend and Waterfront bartender, told her a “good lawyer story” in 1995 about Bass trying to bribe Southworth, and has stuck with his account ever since. Nonetheless, McConkey’s statements — repeated to others and never in a personal declaration of his own — have flip-flopped in talks with defense counsel and investigators for the prosecution. And he has professed a willingness to lie just to get out of the case. “Bob has told me repeatedly that he just wanted the ‘whole thing to go away,’” said Eichenberg in her declaration, “and has told me that he would just say he ‘couldn’t remember because he was drinking.’ Each time, I told Bob he had to tell the truth.” But the truth has been a moving target. Despite Eichenberg’s insistence that McConkey has told a consistent tale for nine years, McConkey has offered conflicting statements to others. He has said Bass simply gave him a $10 tip to split with Southworth, but he’s also said Bass handed him $10 or $20, bought Southworth — a known alcoholic — a drink and told him to tell her to vote guilty. He has also said he thought Bass was joking in any event. And, according to Eichenberg’s recent declaration, he has recently threatened to feign no memory of the events out of fear he will be blamed by locals if Price goes free. Bass, who went on to head the criminal unit of the San Francisco AG’s office during most of the ’90s, has denied that he offered a bribe. Now retired, Bass could not be located by phone and did not respond to an e-mail request. It’s not the first time Bass’ conduct has been called into question in the Price case. Four years ago, defense attorneys alleged that he allowed a law enforcement witness to lie on the stand. However, the state Supreme Court apparently found no truth to the allegation. It declined to consider the claim in its order to show cause. Bass’ claim that he never offered a bribe has been undermined by his racquetball companion, Johnson, the wife of co-prosecutor Worth Dikeman Jr. Johnson recalls Bass putting money on the bar and encouraging Southworth to vote guilty — but only in jest. In a separate declaration filed by the AG’s office earlier this year, Johnson, a partner in Eureka’s Harland Law Firm, said that when it came time to pay the $20-$30 tab Bass had, indeed, placed two $20 bills on the bar and whispered to McConkey, “in a mock conspiratorial tone,” that he should give one of the bills to Southworth and tell her to vote guilty. “We all laughed,” Johnson wrote. “McConkey and I understood that this remark was plainly meant as a joke.” Factual disputes are rife in the case. Bass and Johnson claim they had only two martinis each that evening, while McConkey drank heavily. But McConkey says he had no drinks because he was working, while Bass and Johnson had five or six each. The questions weigh heavily on the issue of witness credibility. Price was convicted of the execution-style killing of Richard Barnes in Temple City on Feb. 13, 1983. Six days later, Price allegedly bludgeoned Elizabeth Hickey to death in the Eureka home she shared with her two young children. Price’s lawyer, Karen Sorensen, hopes the high court will at least order a new trial. If Bass did what he is accused of doing, she said, her client didn’t get a fair trial. And she takes offense at statements that Bass was only joking. “It’s not a laughing matter,” said Sorensen, “for a deputy attorney general, who rose to the head of the criminal division in San Francisco, to make a comment like this in a capital case.” In her most recent court papers, the Greenbrae solo practitioner also argues that Bass’ attempt to “ingratiate himself and curry favor” with Southworth was particularly troublesome because of the juror’s drinking problems. Southworth was arrested for driving under the influence twice during the trial, Sorensen said, and had severe financial troubles, evidenced by a history of writing worthless checks, one for only $15.51. “For a juror in Southworth’s position to be given $10 or $20, or for that matter any money at all from Ron Bass,” Sorensen said in court documents, “would have, and undoubtedly did, incline her favorably towards him and, in turn, towards his side of the case.” San Francisco-based Deputy AG David Rose wouldn’t comment on the case. But in documents filed with the court earlier this year, he warned about giving much weight to McConkey. “The fact that McConkey was drinking at the time he made his statements to defense counsel, combined with his numerous contradictory statements on the topic, and his admission that his memory is clouded by decades of drinking, undermines any suggestion that [Price] can prove any fact solely on the basis of any expectation of future testimony by McConkey. “McConkey,” he said, “acknowledged that he had been a lifelong alcoholic and may have forgotten things.” It’s a mess that the California Supreme Court will have to sort out. The next step could be an evidentiary hearing in the trial court or an oral argument before the Supreme Court. The case is In re Price on Habeas Corpus, S069685.

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