Question Now – Will DA Spend More Tax Dollars to Retry?
SPECIAL TO THE VANGUARD
Sacramento County Deputy District Attorney Anthony Ortiz – who normally handles murder trials and other serious felonies – tasted defeat of sorts here just before high noon Monday in the “not the trial of the century” case of activist Sean Thompson, accused of pieing ex-Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson last September in front of 100-plus people at a charter school fundraiser.
After parts of five days of deliberations, with lots of fits and starts, the jury – 9 women and 3 men – came back with exactly no verdict, no convictions, no guilty votes. The trial began May 1 and Ortiz predicted a slam dunk because, after all, he said that “it was a simple case.” Not exactly.
Judge Robert Twiss was forced – and he wasn’t happy about it – to declare it a hung jury and a mistrial, when the jury gave up and said it was hopelessly deadlocked on all counts. The parties will see June 8 if the DA wants to retry the case.
In fact, the jurors were in agreement, confided one juror, that Thompson was not guilty of the most serious offense, assault on a public official – a felony which could have landed the military veteran in jail for years. The jurors then couldn’t agree on conviction of three other lesser misdemeanor counts.
Another juror also noted that jurors – at least enough of them – would not convict Thompson of assault or battery because they didn’t think a political prank involving a coconut cream pie rose to that level. They also heard witnesses describe an attack by Johnson, more than a half foot taller than Thompson, that savagely sent the pie thrower – who witnesses said did not fight back – to the hospital.
“It was a sort of street justice,” said pro bono defense counsel Jeffrey Mendelman, who handled the case with co-counsel Claire White, of the Vallejo law firm Morton & Russo. “Jurors may have thought that was enough.”
Mendelman calls the mistrial a “victory for justice,” and praised the jurors for doing their job in the face of a paucity of evidence presented by the DA. Johnson was not called by the DA, and he dodged defense subpoenas for months to avoid testifying.
“Of course we would like to have had a unanimous verdict of not guilty, but we’re pleased with today’s results. We would encourage taxpayers to contact their elected representatives in Sacramento and tell them not to waste any more tax dollars over political theatre, which is what this is,” said Mendelman.
In fact, that will be a major point before June 8. Will the budget-strapped DA spend monies to try again a political activist, who admitted he threw the pie because the former mayor ignored the poor, homeless and most taxpayers – to benefit himself and his wealthy friends?
White, in her closing argument, obviously had an impact on the jury’s thought process, arguing “the wrong man is on trial for the one crime,” suggesting it was Johnson who should be on trial for sending Thompson to the hospital.
Even prosecution witnesses said Thompson was beaten bloody by Johnson who didn’t stop punching even though Thompson didn’t fight back and was in a fetal position on the ground. Johnson only stopped punching Thompson, who was hospitalized, when his own security pulled him off, witnesses said.
But White also focused on seemingly small details necessary to convict Thompson of the felony of assault on a public official in his “official duties.” She said presiding over a private school fundraiser for a nonprofit Johnson was involved in was not “official duties” – at least one juror said that influenced her thinking.
“The fact that jurors are asking questions about what happened, and why Kevin Johnson did not testify or how badly he hurt Sean Thompson is where reasonable doubt resides,” said White several days into jury deliberations. She was right.
Finally, Judge Twiss – after he was forced to call it a mistrial – went on a virtual tirade against Thompson, usually reserved for convicted murderers or other serious criminals. Twiss questioned whether Thompson is “really” a military veteran (he is an Air Force veteran), and suggested he probably hadn’t worked a “day in his life” (he does backbreaking landscape and construction work).
Twiss went on to charge that Thompson was “selfish,” when in fact Thompson admitted he did it for the homeless, including homeless military vets, and the poor and the needy who former mayor Johnson “ignored.” Thompson is known for feeding the hungry and was arrested at Black Lives Matter and Occupy protests in nonviolent demonstrations.
Twiss also complained about a news report quoting him saying it was a simple assault case that was only being charged as it is because Johnson is a former mayor. Twiss said he didn’t say that, but news reporters and observers said he did. Several jurors also mentioned after the trial that they also believed the DA was tougher on Thompson because of Johnson’s celebrity as a politician.
Twiss, earlier in the trial, did his best to shoot holes in the defense plan – refusing to allow several defenses, character witnesses for Thompson, photographs and other evidence that would help explain what Thompson did and why.