A few weeks ago Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig received the the 2014 Calvin E. Handy Leadership Award, which recognizes “an individual community member, a group or organization that, through leadership actions, has made significant contributions in promoting leadership through diversity.”
Mr. Reisig deserves a lot of credit for his leadership in starting the Neighborhood Court program, a restorative justice based program for low level offenders that is only the second program of its type in the state of California.
However, the good work that Mr. Reisig has done on innovative programs like the Neighborhood Courts and the Multicultural Community Council gets undermined when we look at the actions of Mr. Reisig in his main job as District Attorney.
Four young Latino males were accused of robbing and assaulting a Woodland man in June of 2013. The jury hung on whether the four men, Justin Gonzalez, Jose Jimenez, Juan Fuentes and Anthony Ozuna, assaulted and robbed the victim that evening.
For the third time, a mistrial was declared in this case.
The second trial in this case had been set to begin in January. It was continued to April, but on the day trial was to begin, a juror admitted to knowing one of the defendants; therefore, it too, was declared a mistrial.
The first trial for the young men took place in November of 2013. The jurors hung on all counts except for one for Juan Fuentes, who was found guilty of a misdemeanor: evading police. But this time around, the jury convicted all four defendants on the gang-related enhancement charges. Juan Fuentes this time was convicted of robbery, as well as resisting/obstructing a public officer, while the jury hung on the assault charge, but for the others, the jury hung on the robbery as well as the assault charges.
As the outcome sits right now, there is an inconsistency with the law. The jury found the defendants guilty of a violation of California Penal Code §186.22(a). Under that section, “Any person who actively participates in any criminal street gang with knowledge that its members engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity, and who willfully promotes, furthers, or assists in any felonious criminal conduct by members of that gang, shall be punished by imprisonment in a county jail for a period not to exceed one year, or by imprisonment in the state prison for 16 months, or two or three years.”
The key thing to remember here, however, is that being a gang member is not a crime unto itself. In order for that to be a crime they have to be engaged in “felonious criminal conduct” above and beyond simply being a gang member. Without a baseline charge that the jury convicts on, it is questionable whether the conviction itself can hold.
The DAs, therefore, faces a quandary. On the one hand, they have a conviction of the gang offense. On the other hand, they have not been able to secure convictions on either the robbery or assault charges for three of the four defendants.
Reading the case through, it seems unlikely that the DA will be able to obtain convictions on the remaining charges against the four defendants.
During trial, James Nichols, the alleged victim in this case, stated on the stand that the “officers lied,” and that he never felt like a victim. He and his girlfriend, Dawn Beatty, testified that they could not see enough to describe much of the details. Beatty only mentioned a Mongolian-style hairdo on a man but couldn’t be sure of anything else.
Beatty, also in testimony, stated, “The cops planted a seed in my head.”
Nevertheless, the DA’s office is offering a hardball deal. They offered 3.8 years if the defendants would admit to the assault with bodily injury count in addition to the gang count, and if they waived their right to appeal.
Without the assault charge, the gang charge likely disappears. But the DA is using leverage here that they may not have. Sure, the defendants theoretically face a huge exposure if convicted of both the assault and robbery charges – but two juries have failed to convict and have not really come that close to doing so.
Last week, defense attorneys Jeff Raven and Ava Landers argued to Judge Rosenberg that their clients have remained working full time and in good, lawful conduct since they were released earlier this year.
Judge Rosenberg allowed defendant Jose Jimenez, Jeff Raven’s client, and Anthony Ozuna, Ms. Landers’ client to remain free from custody, pending sentencing and conferencing on next trial, if there is to be one.
Clearly, the DA’s office wants the conviction here in a case of robbery and assault, but there is not a lot of evidence that they have the right individuals in this case. Pressuring them into a plea agreement after two failed trials does not seem to be in the interest of justice.
The family members are outraged here and the case has brought back up the specter of cash for convictions, where the DA’s office receives grant money in exchange for convictions of key charges such as gang charges. The question is now whether we will see a third trial and, at this point, what the DA thinks he will gain from that, other than misusing taxpayer money and failing to allow the parties involved in this case – on both sides – to move on with their lives.
—David M. Greenwald reporting