This story has been updated to include comment by Tara Reade, who provided evidence for her credentials.
In December 2018, Tara Reade, the woman making headlines for accusing Joe Biden of sexual assault while she was on his senate staff in the 1990s, was called as an expert witness in a Monterey County Superior Court case in which two women, Victoria Ramirez and Jennifer Vazquez, were charged with four counts of attempted murder.
Prosecutors contended that Ramirez and Vazquez went to the Seaside home of Vazquez’s boyfriend and caught him, in a tent in the front yard, having sex with another woman. Ramirez pulled the woman out of the tent and assaulted her, and prosecutors contend the women returned hours later, splashed gasoline around the house and lit the gas on fire.
Reade, who went by the name Alexandra McCabe, appears on the District Attorney’s list of expert witnesses in domestic violence cases. She was called to testify about intimate partner violence and why it was not unusual that the victim in the case initially said he believed he saw the two women fleeing the scene, but just days later, changed his statement to the police and said he saw two men running away.
When she took the stand, Reade was asked, under oath, about her credentials. Included in that testimony, according to an official transcript: that she had earned a degree in liberal arts from Antioch University. But in an extensive report by CNN published May 19, an Antioch University spokeswoman says that while Reade attended the school, she never graduated.
Reached for comment by the Weekly, Reade says that the CNN reporting is incorrect, and that the statement from Antioch University is incomplete. She says that her degree from Antioch University in Seattle was conferred under special circumstances by former Chancellor Toni Murdock. Reade had recently changed her identity following the separation from what she describes as a deeply abusive ex-husband. In order to fulfill her graduation requirements Reade says she had to present coursework completed prior to her identity change. Her account is corroborated by an unofficial transcript from the Seattle University School of Law, which lists Antioch University as Reade’s prior degree granting institution.
The Weekly is seeking comment from Antioch University and will update the story accordingly.
If Reade’s degree turns out to be inauthentic, it may result in a massive headache for the District Attorney’s Office, given that she testified about her credentials under oath. Defense attorneys are considering filing habeas writs that could result in convictions being overturned if it’s found that Reade’s testimony influenced the jury’s decision to convict.
Vazquez and Ramirez were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. According to the transcript, she has testified in at least 20 cases in the past 10 years.
“Experts are relied on to assist at trial on matters that are not commonly known,” says defense attorney Scott Erdbacher, who represented Vazquez in the case. “If those persons lie under oath, that really undermines the system.”
Patrick McKenna, the executive director of the Sixth District Appellate Program, a law firm that represents indigent clients in appellate matters in the Bay Area, sent an email to Monterey County defense attorneys in which he asked them to review current or old cases in which Reade testified as a domestic violence expert.
“It has come to light that Ms. McCabe/Reade may have falsified some of her credentials and so we want to review any cases where she may have testified inaccurately about those credentials,” McKenna writes in the email, which was obtained by the Weekly. “Please contact me directly with any cases you know about. We will work with you to review them individually and determine if a habeas petition is appropriate.”
Defense attorney William Pernik, whose law partner, Roland Soltesz, represented Victoria Ramirez in the case, says that if Reade indeed lied about her credentials, it creates a serious problem for the county’s small legal community.
“Experts such as [Reade] are rarely brought in on easily provable cases. Their value increases as the case difficulty for the prosecution rises and the dots between the crime and the person on trial get harder and harder to connect,” Pernik says. “That means the risk of jury erroneously convicting the accused is astronomically higher. This impacts the integrity of convictions obtained, both through verdict and through settlement of cases, and requires a significant re-examination of past cases, with the brunt of the expense borne by taxpayers.”
If she perjured herself by lying about her credentials, she misled jurors, duped the District Attorney’s Office, perpetrated a fraud on the court and got paid for it, Pernik adds.
“As officers of the court, we all have a responsibility to protect the integrity of our criminal justice system,” Pernik says, “which is why we became so concerned and immediately sprung to action.”
Soltesz, meanwhile, says the District Attorney treated Reade “like a star witness” because the victim changed his story to say the defendants didn’t start the fire at his home.
“Her testimony was critical to the jury in terms of them not believing (the victim) when he testified that our clients weren’t the ones who set the fire,” he says. “She was a pivotal witness to attack his credibility.
“When you’re building a wall, every brick is important, and if you take one out, the whole wall could fall down,” he adds. “I don’t know if this was a cornerstone block, but it could have been critical. The DA called her for a reason.”
The Weekly this week published a cover story about Reade’s time as a Monterey County resident, and her ongoing work as an expert witness in the local court system. Deputy District Attorney Elaine McCleaf told the Weekly that Reade and other expert witnesses are often called to explain to juries why a victim may testify in contradictory ways, or change their story over time. In part, it’s because they’re often torn between their love of their abuser and their desire for safety.
On Reade: “I’ve never seen her not be able to answer a question and she truly is interested in educating the public and in helping domestic violence victims,” McCleaf says. “I think juries are receptive to someone who is so experienced, knowledgeable and articulate.”
McCleaf referred a request for comment about possible habeas writs in Reade’s cases to Chief Assistant District Attorney Berkley Brannon. Brannon said that as of this afternoon on May 21, he hadn't heard from any defense attorneys.
"If it turns out Ms McCabe was untruthful on the stand, obviously that would be of real concern to us," Brannon says. "I understand the issue is whether she went to this undergraduate institution or if she graduated. If she didn't, it's a Brady concern and we would want to notify counsel and take a look at any misstatement of fact if it was material in causing the conviction."
By Brady concern, Brannon was referring to the landmark case Brady v. Maryland, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the prosecution must turn over all evidence that might exonerate a defendant.
If there's reasonable probability that misstatements would have been impeached and changed the outcome of the trial, it means the defendant would be entitled to a new trial.
"If it turns out she was untruthful in any case, we would need to find out how many cases she testified in," Brannon says. "There's no list for me to go to to look it up. We have to canvass attorneys and turn that up."
Nor, Brannon says, is there an easy way to determine how much Reade has earned from being an expert witness. Experts are normally paid by the hour, and for time and travel. The Weekly is filing a Public Records Act request for all checks made out in her name, dating back to 1997, by the Monterey County District Attorney's Office.