Davis Burglary Case Illustrates the Pitfalls of Acting As One’s Own Counsel

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Yolo-Count-Court-Room-150In early September, a Yolo County Jury found Roman Ibanez guilty of three counts – felony conspiracy to commit burglary, misdemeanor resisting or obstructing a peace officer, and misdemeanor possession of burglary tools. 

Mr. Ibanez, for reasons that still are not completely clear, decided to represent himself pro per – act as his own defense counsel.  Unfortunately, he did an exceedingly poor job of this, and turned what should have been a case that would be very difficult to get a conviction on into a fairly easy victory for the DA’s office.

He was originally represented by a Sacramento criminal defense attorney.  However, he fired his attorney and chose to represent himself, against the advice of both Judge Janet Gaard and Judge Stephen Mock, who both urged him to accept either appointed counsel or retain his own counsel.

Questions were raised about the competence of Mr. Ibanez to stand trial.  Judge Stephen Mock said that he had been evaluated by Psychiatrist Cap Thomson who diagnosed Mr. Ibanez with ADD, but believed he was able to fully understand the trial, the procedure, the charges brought against him and was fully aware of his surroundings.

According to the DA’s version of events, memoralized in a September 7th press release, “At approximately 11:00 pm on July 27, 2009, Ibanez, a parolee from the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation, and John Saenz and Valentin Buentello, were seen walking through an apartment complex parking lot in Davis.”

“A resident of the apartment complex noticed the three men driving through the complex slowly and then walking around a back parking lot looking into numerous parked cars. Two of the three individuals had long metal objects partially wrapped in towels in their hands,” the release continued.

“The apartment resident, who had been the victim of previous car burglaries, was suspicious and asked one of his roommates to accompany him to the parking lot,” according to the DA’s office. 

“When both residents returned to the parking lot, Ibanez, Saenz and Buentello were still in the parking lot looking thorough car windows,” the release continued. “The two residents spoke to the three and asked them if they were looking for someone. One of the three men said that they were looking for their “homie” as they all walked away. The three were then seen getting into an SUV in the parking lot. Believing that the three were in the parking lot to break into cars, the resident called the Davis Police Department.”

“Davis Police Department officers arrived and located the SUV driving within blocks of the apartment complex. As officers were conducting a traffic stop, and before the car had reached a complete stop, Ibanez opened the passenger door and ran. Saenz and Buentello stayed in the car,” they continued.

“Officers chased after Ibanez who was located hiding partially under a bush in a nearby apartment complex. When they found him, Ibanez had a pair of thin gloves in his pocket. In the SUV, officers located two more pairs of gloves, several sparkplugs and porcelain chips, three screwdrivers, large wrenches and two small lights,” the account of events concluded.

To illustrate just how badly this went for Mr. Ibanez, he did not ask any follow-up questions.  Nor did he know how to properly formulate the questions.  Judge Mock asked him continuously if he had questions and inquired about his thoughts.

It was only once the prosecution rested that Mr. Ibanez started to recognize his mistake of not questioning the prosecution’s witnesses.

Finally, as Mr. Ibanez had a chance to call his own witnesses, he attempted to call one of the co-defendants, John Saenz, but Mr. Saenz pled the 5th and was removed from the courtroom.  Next Mr. Ibanez asked to call the Police Chief as a possible witness, but was denied on relevancy grounds.

Judge Mock kept trying to give Mr. Ibañez options, and asked him if he had any other witness in mind, even without a subpoena.  He then asked to call forth David Lou, one of the prosecution’s witnesses.

Deputy DA Robin Johnson argued angrily that he had had the chance on the first day to ask questions to Mr. Lou. She said that Mr. Lou did not live in the area and it would take him really long to get to the trial.

However, Judge Mock allowed it.  He released the Jury and extended the trial to the following day to allow Mr. Lou to appear.  The defendant was also allowed to call his father to the stand, over the objections of Prosecutor Johnson.

Shortcomings in the Case:

It is difficult to feel sympathy for Mr. Ibanez, who is only 26 and facing lengthy prison sentence, since a lot of the damage is self-inflicted.  Mr. Ibanez certainly had a history of prior vehicular burglary, which of course was excluded from trial. 

The evidence here is weak at best and there are a number of contradictions.  The problem with this case is that there was no actual crime, it is based on the premise that they were planning to commit a crime and that was based on a number of circumstantial factors.

For one thing, Deputy DA Johnson argued that the SUV was found packed with stuff, but only six items were taken in as evidence.  Having tools in a vehicle is not unusual nor would it be unusual to find a wrench, spark plugs, gloves and a screw driver.

We never found out where the items were concealed, whether they were loose, or whether there was a tool box.

Deputy DA Johnson and the officers said the shiny tools were wrapped in towels, so why weren’t the towels taken in for evidence?

She claimed there were three pairs of gloves, but only one pair was recovered.  The defendant claimed he had a pair of gloves that were blue and white, but that is not the pair of gloves that were shown at trial, which were black and gray.

Moreover, we never found out who owned the SUV and what that individual does for a living.  That might be important if the individual was either a mechanic or did vehicle repairs.

The witness was less than sure about his identification of Mr. Ibanez.  He was asked numerous times if the defendant was one of the members in the parking lot. He never gave a definite answer, just that it was someone who looked like him.  With an attorney cross-examining him properly, that point could have been fleshed out and driven home to the jury.

Officer Ryan Bellamy was placed on the stand after Mr. Ibanez’ father stepped down. DDA Johnson asked him if the witnesses were able to identify the defendant. He said with all confidence and without hesitation, “Lou was able to identify the defendant without any problems, he said ‘that’s him,’ but had issues with the other two.”

Officers Bellamy’s certainty, however, contrasts the uncertainty of the witness himself.  When the witness was on the stand and asked to identify the conspirators, he said that there was a big guy clearly different in stature than the other two.  But Mr. Ibanez was not the big guy.

Perhaps the crime did occur as the prosecutors claim.  We will never know because Mr. Ibanez unfortunately was not qualified to represent himself.  Mr. Ibanez’ conviction should be a lesson to others who choose to represent themselves without counsel.  He turned a case he could have won, because the evidence was exceedingly weak, into a case that was not at all a difficult conviction for the prosecutor or the jury.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

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.

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15 thoughts on “Davis Burglary Case Illustrates the Pitfalls of Acting As One’s Own Counsel”

  1. Mr Obvious

    Maybe Mr Ibanez, even with ADD, recognized that the evidence wasn’t weak and he simply decided to save the tax payers an unnecessary expense.

    Conspiracy: Three people walking through an apartment complex parking lot after dark, two of them with metal objects in their hands, looking into cars, and having no explanation to be there. Burglary tools later found in the vehicle.

    Resisting or obstructing: The officer clearly had reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle, even DG must admit that. Running from the vehicle and away from the police. Wow, were are lucky the Jury bought that one.

    Burglary tools: [quote]When they found him, Ibanez had a pair of thin gloves in his pocket. In the SUV, officers located two more pairs of gloves, several sparkplugs and porcelain chips, three screwdrivers, large wrenches and two small lights,” the account of events concluded. [/quote]

    That’s weird, there were three individuals involved and three pairs of gloves. I would say you could find spark pugs in a car, in the engine, or in an auto parts bag. That’s not an item usually left rolling around. As for the porcelain chips, there no reason to have those unless you’re breaking windows. Three screw driver, totally weird again. A big wrench and a flashlight maybe.

    It appears the officers were smart enough to look at the totality of the circumstances and made the right call. You have a parolee on parole for burglary with all these weird coincidences that shockingly point to another burglary or at lease attempted burglary.

  2. jimt

    I second Mr. Obvious’s points.

    Perhaps the witness was reluctant to positively ID the suspect due to an intimidation factor (the suspect and friends knew where he lived; the suspects are punks with priors at best, maybe gang members).
    This may be an example of how being perceived as a possible gang member, or just working crimes in a group actually helps you from being prosecuted due to the witness intimidation factor; and why any sign of gang activity arising needs to be nipped in the bud.
    Kudos to the police for picking up these guys; chalk up another one for law & order.

    I do agree with Mark Twains quote about one who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client

  3. David M. Greenwald

    Mr. Obvious: That’s a lot of speculation. There was no need for intimidation, the guy was going to jail and he has no history of any kind of violent crime. The case was exceedingly weak. I talked to one of the lawyers who was counsel for one of the co-defendants. The guy just got angry it appears because he wasn’t getting the responsiveness he wanted from his lawyer and somehow decided he could do better himself – he couldn’t. I don’t know if he did it or not, but I think a good lawyer could have gotten him off based on the case presented.

  4. Mr Obvious

    What I find as interesting is DG’s opinion is often times wrong based on that the jury finds. Regardless if this guy did have a fool for a client, if the case was exceedingly weak the jury would not have found him guilty. Exceedingly weak would have lead to at least reasonable doubt. Then again your idea of reasonable is often wrong as well.

  5. David M. Greenwald

    I’m sorry if this comes across as insulting, but you are being completely naive about the role that good counsel plays in this process. A strong investigation has to be mounted to investigate the claims of law enforcement. Witnesses need to be cross-examined to show the weakness of their position. A good closing statement is needed to tie all of the elements of the case together.

    Look at the study from groups like the innocence project, they find that the number one culprit in cases where DNA exonerated wrongly convicted people was ineffective counsel.

    According to the study from the Innocence Project: “the most common types of claims included defense lawyers who: failed to present defense witnesses (often to establish/confirm an alibi); failed to seek DNA testing or have serology testing done to try to exclude the client; failed to object to prosecutor arguments or to evidence introduced by the state; and failed to interview witnesses in preparation for trial or to cross examine state witnesses.”

    What do we have here? Failure to present defense witnesses, failure to object to prosecutor arguments, failure to object to evidence introduced by the state, failure to interview witnesses in preparation for trial, and failure to cross examine state witnesses.

    And when he did do these things, he did not do them well.

    What’s more ineffective than a guy who did not even know enough to cross examine witnesses? Had no resources to investigate? And could not put together a credible argument in closing?

    Exceedingly weak only leads to reasonable doubt if you have a lawyer that can punch through the arguments that the prosecutor.

    I’m appalled at your failure to understand this point. I really am.

    It goes against scores upon scores of evidence about ineffective counsel and the reason why ineffective counsel is a reason for overturning conviction and the reason why in fact need to have the right counsel itself.

  6. Mr Obvious

    I understand that council plays an important role in any trial. My concern is that you call the evidence in this case exceedingly weak when to most people it is more than obvious.

    I don’t think this guy should have represented himself but with what was presented I don’t think there was much to argue if he had Perry Mason. I understand that a lot of the case is circumstantial but it’s not like this guy was simply stopped in a car and had a spark plug under the seat. There is a lot more to this than that.

  7. David M. Greenwald

    How is it more than obvious?

    There was no burglary. The items found in his car were items frankly I have in my car minus the spark plugs, and the witness was not sure about the guy he saw. A good attorney would rip that apart.

  8. hpierce

    David… you apparently believe that the jury is stupid and will go with ‘who won the debate’ rather than using independent judgment as to whether the case is “proved”. That might be true. I do know, based on numerous exclusions from jury service, that attorneys, on either side, tend to remove those whose professions, background, etc. indicate a pattern of independent judgment. There is a ‘game’ in judicial matters, IMHO. Attorneys (most, not all) are interested in win/loss statistics while claiming to be representing “justice”.

  9. David M. Greenwald

    Let me answer your question with a question: What do you think the research on ineffective counsel in exonerations show?

    The bottom line is that a prosecutor can make a good presentation and show a string of events. If unchallenged, then we have no reason to doubt those contentions. When they are challenged, witnesses come forward that might show a different story about what happened. Claims made by the prosecutor could be challenged. There was no coherent story presented by the defense here to explain what happened and counter prosecution claims. Innocent people get convicted because often evidence is not as clear cut as you would like it to be.

    I don’t discount the rest of what you say, but if there is no challenge of evidence and no investigation that might lead to witnesses and exculpatory evidence, how do we know?

    I don’t know if the guy did it or did not do it. I know that the evidence appears thin. I know the people involved in the case felt it was a weak case and they can generally tell you which cases are strong and which ones are weak.

  10. Iyah

    This article is not about whether the jury got it right or wrong. Itis not about the jury at all. It’s about not having proper representation. It’s about the fact that the full story was not told, which can easily lead to a wrong impression. There is an old proverb about blind men feeling an elephant and describing what they feel. One describes the trunk. The second describes a leg and the third the body. Each comes to a different conclusion based on what they know. Each is very adamant about what they believe the elephant to be. The problem is not one of them can feel or see the whole elephant. They have a skewed perception, which can potentially lead to the wrong conclusions. This article is about not getting the whole story or someone who can put the story/evidence into context. The prosecution was unchallenged and if that happens, it is very easy to understand why a jury would find for guilt.

  11. kathryndruliner

    The answer is relatively simple. Our system is an adversary system. In it’s ideal form (hardly ever reached due to the disparity between funding for criminal defendant’s and prosecutors) both sides are equally represented so the truth will come out. That did not happen here.

    It was not a fair fight.

  12. kathryndruliner

    The answer is relatively simple. Our system is an adversary system. In it’s ideal form (hardly ever reached due to the disparity between funding for criminal defendant’s and prosecutors) both sides are equally represented so the truth will come out. That did not happen here.

    It was not a fair fight.

  13. jimt

    In our system, in some cases it is also allowed for the defendant to represent himself.
    Should we deny him the right to fight for himself as he sees fit? (though I agree it is nearly always going to be an unfair fight). Not according to our current system (which I personally agree with).

    I don’t know if our system is set up so much to find truth as it is to weigh evidence (the defense evidence against; and the prosecution evidence for–the scales of justice)–in this case, a lawyer could likely have accumulated more evidence against; and perhaps shifted the balance and one or more of the verdicts. There may or may not be any relationship to the truth of what actually happened.

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