Eye on the Courts: Retooling the Vanguard Court Watch Program

yolo_county_courthouseIn late 2009, I sat down with a friend in a café across from the Capitol in Sacramento and lamented the fact that there were a number of troublesome case, most notably the Ajay Dev case, but that we had no way to easily identify them before they went to trial and someone tipped us off.

Covering an already-completed trial proved difficult, if not impossible.  A few weeks later the plan for the court watch program was hatched.  The original idea would be to have interns go into the courthouse, take notes, get me to the cases that were problematic, and I would write stories.

Due in part to the efforts of some extraordinary interns in the first two years, and my ability to get into the court regularly, the project largely was successful.  We covered some fairly notable cases and had an impact.

But the format proved hard to sustain.  Lacking the finances to hire full time staff and administrators, interns came and went, and as my time became more strained with the day-to-day operations of the Vanguard and the need to continually raise money, it grew difficult to get into the courthouse regularly.

A decision needed to be made last summer.  It was a painful one.  The bottom line, however, was that if the court watch program were to continue, changes needed to be made.

In August, I made a critical determination that monitoring the courts was not only worthwhile, but was essential to this community and this county.  And I set about creating a new framework for the court watch program.

The first steps, which took effect September 1, were not noticeable to the public.  They had to do with internal requirements that I am not going to get into.  The result of these changes are that we produced a group of strong and dedicated interns starting last fall, most of whom have stayed on into the spring.

The second steps were a sea change.  In order to really cover the courts, the interns had to become the ones in charge of writing their accounts.

At our first January meeting, I sat the interns – all of whom were continuations from the previous quarter – down and explained to them the changes.  I was scared.  I didn’t know how they would react to writing their own stories.

To both my surprise and relief, they enthusiastically endorsed the idea.  The day-to-day writing would be turned over to the interns.  Each intern was responsible for at least one short article per week.  I would then combine some of the short articles into a large article under the Vanguard Court Watch byline.

I would be freed up to take on more the role of an editor.  Not only editing their work, but writing systemic pieces, following up on larger cases, and writing a weekly column: Eye on the Courts.

I left the publication of their names up to them.  As interns, I feel that I have a responsibility for the safety of the interns and sometimes these things can get heated.  As time has gone on, however, the interns have become more comfortable in their role and have been more willing to publish under their own names.

Two weeks ago, we had a debriefing at the end of the quarter.  To an intern, they told me that writing was the best part of the program.

Writing has not only produced a better product, but has produced ownership in the program.  The interns are engaged and they want to learn more.  Next quarter I will be implementing almost all of their suggestions for improvement.

But the biggest part of the revamped program is yet to come.  Last Sunday, a group of citizens met in the West Sacramento library.

The Vanguard Court Watch has formed a council to conduct public meetings.  We will rotate the location of the meetings among venues in West Sacramento, Woodland and Davis.  It is possible that we will select other locations like Winters or Esparto or Dunnigan in the future, as well.

On April 28, in Woodland at a location which we will lock down shortly, we will have our first public meeting.

The public meeting will allow residents from the community to come forward and relay their experiences.  We will also invite individuals to come forward and discuss their specific matters.

The public would come to the council with cases that should be covered or monitored.

The goal would be: (1) Identify cases that should be tracked; (2) Identify police incidents in Yolo County to be investigated; (3) Identify cases of discrimination or prejudice in Yolo County.

Part of the problem that exists right now is that until a case goes forward to preliminary hearing or trial, we have no real way of analyzing it.  A huge number of cases end up settling long before they get to the stage where we might be able to learn about them.

As we know from the case of Brian Banks, the former high school football star who pled guilty to rape, he was convinced to take a plea by his attorney.  Despite this plea, Mr. Banks last year would be exonerated, as the accuser admitted to having fabricated the story.

By meeting in public, we can scrutinize many more cases.  We are not offering legal advice.  And we are not helping people either fire their attorneys or look for other attorneys.

Instead, we are hearing the cases in public.  At the very least they will become cases that we will track through the courts, or we can agree to investigate them further to write up a story.

The council is comprised of eight regular members, four from Woodland and two each from Davis and West Sacramento.

We also asked a few to serve as “advisors,” people with expertise who can help advise members of the public on process issues as well as help the council figure out what best to do.

We have three of those four advisor spots filled with Cruz Reynoso, the former California Supreme Court Justice; James Hernandez, professor at Sac State who was the defense gang expert in the Gang Injunction Trial, and Attorney Anthony Palik who, among other cases, defended Ernesto Galvan who was badly beaten by West Sacramento Police.

As soon as we lock down the location of the meeting scheduled for 5 to 7 pm in Woodland on Sunday, April 28, we will be heavily publicizing it with ads in the Woodland newspaper, as well as other publicity.

It is our goal that these public meetings will allow us to identify more cases, earlier on, so that we can monitor, track and report more in the future.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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.

Related posts


  1. SODA

    Congratulations David on the proposed changes…..I am glad your work has provided the interns meaningful experience and the community increased information. As I have suggested to you before, I think their stories would be improved by more editing; often the case summaries are hard to understand, especially reading quickly which is often the case with a blog. Perhaps they could each review and edit each others’ for clarity before publishing. Not to be critical, as I said, the system is win/win for all of us…just a suggestion….

  2. Themis

    David this sounds like a great plan to move forward. It is always hard to let go of having complete control of something you have worked so hard on, but you have done a great job in choosing your interns. Their work as well as yours is much needed and appreciated. Keep up the great work!

  3. Nemesis

    You are doing the community such a wonderful service of keeping us updated on what is going on in a very broken legal system. I have a feeling you are on to something with the community based meetings. The bigger the turnout you have at these will lead to more and better changes. Grass roots changes are always the best.

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for