According to a release from the DA, the jury found Vasquez guilty of robbery with intentional use and discharge of a firearm causing great bodily injury, assault with a firearm causing great bodily injury and attempting to dissuade a witness. The jury also found that the crimes were committed for the benefit of a criminal street gang.
The DA’s account, which was essentially repeated verbatim in the Davis Enterprise, Woodland Daily Democrat, the Sacramento Bee (without any kind of further examination or inquiry) gives one account of the events.
On July 4, 2009, days before a scheduled preliminary hearing in his case, a correctional officer at the jail found a letter written by Vasquez. The letter was smuggled out of the jail by an inmate who was being released from custody. In the letter Vasquez admitted shooting the victim and he also asked that some of his “homies” let witnesses know that they should not attend his trial or that they should say that he was not there at the time of the shooting.
District Attorney Jeff Reisig commended the efforts of the Woodland Police Department and prosecution team. “Law enforcement did an outstanding job catching this dangerous gang member. We will remain committed to aggressively prosecuting violent gangsters such as this and seeking maximum prison sentences.”
The Vanguard’s examination of the evidence and events shows a considerably nuanced and complicated crime that is based largely on the accounts of two witnesses, themselves guilty of considerable uncharged crimes and therefore suspect witnesses themselves, and a rambling and at times incomprehensible, vague, and ambiguous letter that was withheld from the defense until right before the trial. Moreover, the DA’s account of the story fails to mention that the Jury hung on an attempted murder charge, all but one of the gang enhancement charges, and one of the assault with a firearm charges.
The Vanguard sat down with Mr. Vasquez’s family to get their side of the story. According to them Mr. Vasquez went to a party at a Woodland apartment where he called on the phone to meet with a guy to purchase what would be a reasonable sized quantity of marijuana. The victim, a 15 year old, sells marijuana by the kilo.
Mr. Vasquez entered the car, the brother of the victim was driving, the victim was in the front passenger seat, and the victim’s girlfriend sat in child seat in the back in the middle, while Mr. Vasquez sat in back right side of the car. Mr. Vasquez grabbed one of the bags to take a look at the product.
It is there that two versions of what happened varied. According to the DA, Mr. Vasquez grabbed the bag to steal it and when the victim intervened, he pulled out a gun and shot him, wounding him severely.
According to the family, he was merely looking at the marijuana to see the product and the driver had attempted to rob Mr. Vasquez, pulled the gun on Mr. Vazquez, they wrestled for the gun and the gun went off.
Police spoke with the girl at whose residence the party was held. According the DA’s account, she went to the Woodland Police Department to speak with Detective Cordova a few days after incident, she said that she was afraid to give a statement. The defendant had been at home on the date of the incident. She saw him go down the stairs and heard a pop, she saw the defendant moving around a car with a gun in hand. When the defendant returned to the apartment he told her that he thought that had shot someone.
During the trial, she testified that she had been threatened that she could go to jail and her baby taken away from her, so she was taken in handcuffs to the police station for a casual interview by Detective Ron Cordova. She said the defendant returned to the apartment frightened and muttering he thought he had shot someone. He had a gun at this time, but she had not seen one before he left the apartment.
There are a number of key questions that remain in this account of the incident. First, the gun was never found. So we do not know whose gun it was. The police apparently never conducted a gun residue test to find out if Mr. Vasquez or the victim had powder or powder burns on his hands. There was no gun expert that testified in the case.
Second, neither the authorities nor the defense were able to produce the brother of the victim, one of the key witnesses in the incident.
Complicating the case however was the emergence literally as the trial was about to begin of a letter that was confiscated by authorities on July 4, 2009. The letter was not revealed by the District Attorney’s Office until March 3, 2010 as the trial was about to start.
The DA viewed this as an admission that he shot the victim and that he also asked to let some of his “homies” let witnesses know that they should not attend his trial or that they should say that he was not there at the time of the shooting.
The reality is more muddled. The letter never reached its intended target, the defendant’s mother, and it reads more like a scared and angry rant than anything else. Nevertheless, it appears crucial in the conviction process, although again, the jurors were apparently unconvinced on what his intent was as they hung on the attempted murder charge.
He writes, “hey mom i seen my public defender and i guess im facing 2 life sentences 1 for the attempted murder and i for the gun enhancement cuz theres a law called 10-20-life law and since i caused great bodily injury so for that i’m facing life in that too.”
It is unclear here if he says he caused great bodily injury or whether he is trying to say that they (the prosecutor and police) are saying that he did this. Part of the problem that becomes obvious is that Mr. Vasquez’s grammar and verbiage are poor and he meanders all over the place.
Nevertheless he makes clear later on that he did in fact shoot the victim. He writes, “my attorny said i’ll get convicted in trial if i just say wasnt there or if it wasnt me cause they got too much already. i want you or corinna to talk to the guy who did your tatoo and ask him, since these niggas is snitchin on me and telling the whole **** but leaving out the part about the dude pullin a banger on me, thats why he got shot, so ask him if i can use that for my defense saying it was self defense, that i shot him cuz he pulled a gun on me, cuz that’s what happened, they just leaving that out and by me sayin that, its just going to help me get this attempted murder dropped to self defense.”
From this it appears that he admits to shooting the guy, but claims that the guy he shot, pulled the gun first. So that leads to the question as to whether there were actually two guns. Again, no gun was recovered.
He continues, “im just gonna let em know why i shot him cuz they makin it seem like i just shot him to do it. so i want to know if i can use that 4 my defense or will that be considerd snitchin cuz someone told me by me sayin that, they aint gonna get no jail time or nothin that it’s just gonna help me get his attempted murder justified to self defense and that im still gonna go to prison for the robbery and havin the gun but it wont be life.”
Then he says, “so unless someone will and can get this macy bitch and pablo to shut the **** up and say in court it wasnt me, unless thats gonna happen or get them to put the part in that they left out about that gun gettin pulled on me after i snatched that weed, then i dont know i’m probly ****ed! and someone needs to let debrahs sister know what the ****, and she better not ****ing come to my trial or else.”
It’s not clear at this point if it was a threat, the clearest potential threat comes almost at the end, “let the homies know and if this shit going to trial and it aint lookin good and she snitchin tell one my homies **** they shit up cocktails and all.”
What is clear in the letter is he is getting more frustrated and angry as he continues. At one point he writes in huge caps, “Cuz Im getting ****ing made at everybody and if I get life im not talkin to no one who aint try to help me out.”
Clearly it was a poor decision by Mr. Vazquez to write the letter. Clearly he admits he shot the gun, the question remains though as to whether he was the instigator of the incident. Given the fact that the letter never got to his mother, and given the fact that he sent it to his mother not one of his “homies” it is unclear if he was really intending to dissuade a witness. The intent to dissuade a witness was an additional 7 years to life sentence tacked on to the other charges.
The last part of this case is the gang enhancement. The DA makes the claim in his press release that, “The jury also found that the crimes were committed for the benefit of a criminal street gang.” That is actually not true. The jury in fact, hung on each of the gang enhancements except on the last count, dissuading a witness.
The evidence of gang activity in this incident is weak at best. The DA makes references to the fact that the defendant is sending a letter to his mother to “get his homies to use violence to prevent the witnesses from testifying.” The use of the term homies was made to necessarily infer “gang” membership. But in fact that is a rather common term that has no specific gang connotation.
Moreover, they cite a tattoo on the back of his neck. The tattoo says “Bosque.” They claim that is a gang tattoo, but in point of fact “Bosque” is the Spanish term meaning in quite literal translation, Woodland. It seems at least questionable that Bosque would be a gang tattoo.
At sentencing, Mr. Vasquez’s attorney argued that there was an error involving Count Two (the robbery charge with enhancements). Mr. Vasquez’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Charles Butler, argued that “Fundamental due process prevents this Court from imposing an uncharged 25 years-life count enhancement as to Count Two of the Information.”
He continued, “The jury was misled by the verdict forms as to Count Two as well. Title of this verdict form is “special finding case enhancement 2b,” this is a count enhancement, not a case enhancement, and as such bolsters Mr. Vasquez’ claim that he was denied his due process rights in regards to the Penal Code section 12022.53(d) enhancement that was never pled as to Count Two but found true as a case enhancement by the jury in their verdict.”
The defense also argued that “a life sentence for an ineffectual attempt to have a letter delivered to Defendant’s mother… is cruel and unusual punishment.” He argued that this would be “the imposition of a penalty that is disproportionate to the defendant’s personal responsibility and moral guilt.”
Mr. Vasquez’s attorney would add, “Mr. Vasquez, after speaking with his newly assigned public defender, wrote an ill-advised letter to his mother. In the letter the defendant was found to have attempted to threaten or dissuade certain witnesses from testifying in this trial. This letter nor its contents were ever communicated by the defendant or anyone acting on his behalf.” He continues, “Though the offense did involve the potential high degree of risk of harm and injury, no one was threatened or harmed.”
Furthermore, Mr. Vasquez was 20 years old when he committed these offenses and 21 years old when he wrote this letter to his mother. “Defendant submits that where as here, defendant writes a letter that contains language that is proffane and emotionally violent, that letter never leaves the Yolo county Jail before it is intercepted by jail staff, and as a result no one is ever threatneed or harmed, a 7 years to life term is cruelly and unusually disproportionate under the Eight Amendment…”
The gang enhancement here is the key to the length of the sentence and that gang enhancement is really based on the use of the term homies.” As Mr. Butler argued in writing, “Mr. Vasquez will receive a life sentence for an ineffectual ATTEMPT to threaten or dissuade a witness because of the gang enhancement found true by the jury.”
In countering the defense’s claims Judge Fall during sentencing made the rather hyperbolic comment that this letter was somehow akin to Al Capone and New York in the 1960s, whereby gangsters used intimidation tactics to scare and prevent witnesses from coming forward. To me that is an absurd analogy in this case. It is not as though he sent armed gang members to silence witnesses through intimidation.
The shooting itself, even with the letter, the jury hung on the attempted murder charge. We do not have the gun. We do not know whose gun it was. It is clear from the witnesses that Mr. Vasquez shot the victim, it is not clear why or what happened. With that in question, there seems room for doubt on both robbery charge and the intentional use of a firearm to cause great bodily injury.
Finally, we have to really question whether Mr. Vasquez was attempting to dissuade a witness or whether he believed the witnesses were not telling the whole story and wanted to send them the message to tell the whole story about why he shot the guy. Nevertheless, given the fact that the letter never reached its target and furthermore given that it was sent to his mother whether there was a clear nexus between writing the letter and criminal intent, it seems questionable as to whether this was truly an attempt to dissuade the witness.
I see no real evidence of gang activity here. It appears that an individual attempted to buy a large quantity of marijuana. The evidence linking him to gang activity is ambiguous at best. The use of the term homies and the tattoo do not amount to proof of gang activity.
Moreover, we have to admonish Judge Fall for his blatant hyperbole in this matter. His conduct in general was unbecoming of a judge, mocking and acting condescendingly toward the family of the convicted.
—David M. Greenwald reporting