In his Friday column, Davis Enterprise columnist Bob Dunning raises the question as to whether Clayton Garzon, accused in the brutal beating of Mikey Partida back in March, would be able to get a fair trial in Yolo County.
He concludes, “If the defense can find 12 people in Yolo County who have never heard of this case, fine … but they would have to have been living in a cave to say that honestly …”
He argues, “While I recognize and embrace the concept of ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ many of us in town are simply too familiar with this case to be truly impartial … and no matter how many warnings jurors are given to consider only the evidence presented, it’s nearly impossible to unring the bell if you know of other evidence that has not been presented for one reason or another …”
The question for this column is where to start. So let me state this up front: I think a lot of people in Yolo County have not gotten fair trials. There are several cases that the Innocence Project is looking into where innocent people may have been convicted of crimes. Each summer, about 200 people gather for a protest of the Ajay Dev conviction, which I have become increasingly convinced was an utter travesty of justice.
We have seen a number of cases that get overturned on appeal, as well.
And, on a weekly basis, even in some of the more minor cases, we see all sorts of egregious examples to convince you that no one can get a fair trial here. Actually let me amend that – people do get fair trials here, so my clearest statement of purpose is that no one is assured of getting a fair trial here. Then again, to be fair, the unfortunate fact is that no one is assured of getting a fair trial anywhere.
With that out of the way, we have had some far more high profile trials. Just before my time was the murder trial for the killing of Highway Patrol Officer Andy Stevens, where the shooter was given the death penalty. And more recently you had the Marco Topete trial for the shooting of Sheriff’s Deputy Tony Diaz.
The Topete trial was probably the highest profile trial we have had in my time covering the courts, and that was kept in Yolo County despite far stronger reasons to move the venue – the locking out of the press and public at his arraignment, to the fact that Deputy Diaz worked in Yolo County Courts and all of the judges but one recused themselves.
Within that scope, I think Mikey Partida’s beating, while gaining regional media attention, has gotten nowhere near the attention of some other cases. And while a jury made up of 12 Davis residents might be a little problematic, this is a big county.
The fact is that most people who do not live in Davis either do not know anything about this case or only have vague recollections. We tend to be a little parochial here, but this case, while a big deal in the city of Davis, is not going to cause much problem for the Yolo County courts.
I sit in on a number of jury selections, and they are painfully methodical in going through the potential jurors. Have you heard about the case? If so, do you believe what you have heard has prejudiced you?
Now, often I wonder if these potential jurors aren’t actually answering the question: do you want to serve on the jury? Because if you want to serve on the jury, you can assure the attorney that you can be fair, but if you want to leave, you admit that you cannot be fair.
Then it kind of depends on the attorney. Almost always, those who suggest they cannot be fair get bounced, and often the attorney will use a peremptory challenge even when they are assured the person cannot be fair.
Given that Mr. Garzon has a huge budget (apparently) to work with, he may employ a jury consultant to help with the process.
Since early 2010, the Vanguard Court Watch has run into two hate crimes cases. The first was the taxi cab attack on the Sikh person. Horrific attack, but I’m not convinced that was actually hate-crime motivated.
In that case, you had four drunk passengers, two guys and two women, coming back from a night on the town. The main attacker gets into it with the taxi cab driver, they start yelling at each other and suddenly he starts attacking him, and beats him savagely.
During the beating he starts yelling anti-Islamic epithets (to the Sikh cab driver). So was the guy motivated in part out of hate (as the statute requires) or was he simply drunk and in the heat of the moment yelling put downs?
We will never know for sure because he took a 13-year plea agreement (his “accomplice” really was a bystander and got probation).
The other hate crime charge was a recent one, a fight at Tres Hermanos where one guy knocked the turban off another. That was a misdemeanor case and the guy got convicted of a misdemeanor resisting arrest, but acquitted of the hate crime
We do not have a lot of history, but it is clear that a jury is not going to automatically convict on a hate crimes charge.
Mr. Dunning does raise a good point when he writes, “Those of us who grew up here recognize a number of familiar names surrounding the case, including those of several witnesses who will no doubt testify … that, too, affects one’s perception of guilt or innocence.”
It’s an interesting point because, whenever we cover a Davis case in particular, I get people coming forward all of the time who know either the victim or the defendant. This case is no different – I know quite a few people who know one or the other, or in some cases both.
That is true of any case in Davis. In some of the cases we have covered, I have had interns who know either the victim or the defendant. But it is that way in every community. When there are Woodland cases, often my Woodland contacts know the defendants. In West Sacramento, it is the same thing.
There is a reason why they sometimes spend two or three days in big cases on jury selection – so that you can guard against these potential sources of bias.
Finally, Mr. Dunning makes an interesting point, “I’ve read at least half a dozen times that the defendant is facing similarly serious charges from a completely unrelated case in Dixon … falsely accused once? … perhaps … falsely accused twice? … not likely.”
My friend Bernita Toney would probably take issue with the notion that one cannot be falsely accused twice.
But there are a number of times when a person has been falsely accused of one crime but did commit a second crime. I just read a case in Sacramento where the man was acquitted of a murder charge but a few years later was convicted of transportation of drugs. His attorney argued that his time in prison stripped him of his ability to work and he ended up selling drugs to make a living.
Another thing that happens is that people get caught up with crowds and end up accused of a crime – falsely in one case, but rightly in another case.
The bottom line is there is a reason they often keep evidence of other charges out of the courtroom – it allows the jury to focus on the facts of the case at hand, rather than jumping to conclusions.
As Mr. Dunning notes, “Then again, he could be innocent of one and guilty of the other, but my brain tells me that when you’re facing significant charges in two separate jurisdictions, I’m going to cross the street and keep my head down if I see you coming my way.”
Probably a wise move, but then again the standard for taking caution to protect oneself is a good deal lower than the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Bottom line, if you ask me if Mr. Garzon can get a fair trial in Yolo County, my answer is that he can get as fair a trial as anyone else who has been charged in Yolo County, and given his resources and background, perhaps a better chance than some. At this point, I see no reason to move the trial.
—David M. Greenwald reporting