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Eye on the Courts: DA’s Office at Its Worst

GangA 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

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About David Greenwald

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

27 comments

  1. Tia, I agree with many of the points you have already written in other articles.
    #1 Police officers should not be allowed to lie, or “plant seeds”, when interviewing witnesses or the accused.
    #2 Only violent people should be held in country while awaiting trial. If we are all innocent until proven guilty. stop treating us like we are guilty until proven innocent.
    #3 Extensive psychological testing for police,attorneys, and judges involved in the criminal justice system.
    #4 Minimum age of twenty five for police and attorneys.
    #5 No statute of limitations for police misconduct.
    #6 Prison cells and kitchens must have surprise inspections, like health dept. inspections of our restaurants.

  2. *county* ,not country.

  3. Also, anyone who commits fraud or commits police misconduct should have criminal charges brought against them. If someone lies, I.e., a witness, the police, the D.A., etc., that should be a serious crime. Not just perjury, which is usually committed while under oath. When a witness lies, when an accuser falsely accuses someone, etc., that should be a felony. Jailhouse snitches lie all the time. Police lie to get confessions. D.A.’s lie to get plea bargains. Prison guards lie. All this lying has to stop.

  4. False accusation is already a crime; though it can be difficult to prove or separate from genuine good-faith mis-identification.
    For example, it has been estimated that about 1/3 of all reported rapes involve false accusations; the man’s life is often ruined even if the ‘victim’ retracts her accusation. Of course such a false accusation is very serious; I think the reason such false accusations are not generally punished severely is that if false accusers were to be seriously punished; then there would be fewer confessions by the ‘victim’ that their accusation was false; and so the alleged perp would continue in jail for a crime not committed.

    Perjury is already a felony crime; those convicted are often severely punished; this would cover witnesses under oath (why it is important for witnesses to give statements under oath).

    Yep, I don’t see any easy ways to reduce the amount of lying going on everywhere; perhaps if a culture of personal honor and integrity were valued more highly; this would put a dent in some of the lying (to be widely adopted, this would also require a more fair society in all aspects; basically a higher evolution).

    • tribeUSA, You made some good points. Sorry to dwell on this one issue- false accusations- but it hits a nerve. A kind police detective and a criminal defense lawyer each told me that the woman who falsely accused my family member of sexual assault was suffering from a mental illness and in her heart she did believe something occured, so no one will prosecute her for falsely accusing. I guess she has the defense of not guilty for the reason of insanity, for lack of a better way to explain it.
      After spending close to two hundred thousand dollars in legal fees, my family member plea bargained to a different crime that he did not commit. Instead of spending a possible seven years doing hard timein a state prison, he wound up doing six months in county. Record expunged many years later, but on the sex offender registry for the rest of his life.
      I have written a book about this period in my life to reach some kind of closure and for my children to understand what really happened. I have no desire to publish such an excruciatingly painful chapter of my life. But it does help to write about it.
      It’s really difficult visiting someone in county every Friday morning, and chatting with other family members in the lobby of a jail, when you know the person in that jail is an innocent man.
      But have faith that in my lifetime our criminal justice system will be overhauled. And I am still proud to be an American citizen. Go figure.

  5. I agree robin…really strange that the sheriff AND reisig ran unnaposed

  6. Some additional thoughts upon ensuring equal treatment under the law
    1) Make it mandatory, since the DAs office is representing “the state”, for the state to pay all defense costs, including time lost from work if a defendant is acquitted.
    2) No incentives, either financial or career for convictions. If what we have is a “justice” system, restoration of justice should be enough reward ,along with their salary and benefits for our prosecutors.
    3) The same financial and time resources should be available for defenders as for prosecutors if we are going to persist with our adversarial system.
    4) No courtroom theatrics. Cases should be presented by a neutral arbitrator whose job is to present the face, not
    stage an emotionally compelling, but potentially factually lacking case.
    5) No lying permitted for anyone at any time with the possible exception of immediate threat to life if information
    is not obtained as in a kidnapping. These cases would obviously be quite rare and extreme.

  7. @Tia…

    You may be asking for a miracle…..lol

    If the jury was absent the courtroom theatrics, we may have had a few different outcomes n cases.

    I don’t mind emotion, passion, just not a three ring circus as I’ve witnessed in some trials. I believe they can certainly biase a jury…

    I’d love to see some of the.changes you mention….maybe in another.four yrard..;-)

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