Mark Berndt, the former Miramonte Elementary School teacher accused of lewd conduct against his students, has hired as his defense attorney a former federal prosecutor who is also an ex-television news reporter.
Manny Medrano took Berndt's case up on Tuesday. A reporter for NBC4 for a decade who also worked at KTLA and covered the U.S. Supreme Court for ABC News, Medrano He replaces a public defender who has represented Berndt since last year.
Berndt is faces multiple felony counts and is being held on $23 million bail, an amount that Medrano said he'd seek to have reduced. The changes against Berndt set off a firestorm of anger against the Los Angeles Unified School District, which faces at least 189 claims over the alleged abuse.
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A veteran teacher at the campus in the unincorporated Florence-Firestone area, Berndt is accused of feeding semen-laced cookies to blindfolded students, among other allegations.
"The allegations, let’s be honest, are very, very disturbing," Medrano said. "But consider the source of them—all the information that the public knows has come from only two sources: law enforcement and the Los Angeles Unified School District. … Every story has two sides."
Medrano said he'd been hired after Berndt learned of him through others. On his website, Medrano touts having obtained convictions in every federal prosecution of his that went to trial – in 60 cases. His law firm now focuses on criminal defense.
"He asked to meet with me. We met many times. We hit it off," said Medrano, who declined to discuss his fees.
Medrano said he is considering seeking a change of venue in the case to get Berndt away from Los Angeles.
"There has been profound negative publicity in this case," Medrano said. "You can’t pick up a newspaper...or see something on TV without some reference to Mr. Berndt. … He seems to be demonized at this point."
At a hearing at the Clara Foltz Criminal Justice Center on Thursday, a judge accepted the substitution of Medrano as Berndt's attorney.
Berndt's next court date in this slow-moving case is Feb. 6.