Last week, I was researching something for my column on the District Attorney’s Victims of Crime award ceremony when I stumbled upon something – I have been blocked from following District Attorney Jeff Reisig’s Twitter account “at the request of the user.”
My first response was bemusement and even a little flattery. Someone, possibly Jeff Reisig himself, took the time to see that I was following him on Twitter and decided to block me. Unlike on Facebook, because Twitter accounts are normally public, blocking does not mean I cannot see his tweets, his followers, his photos and videos. Nope. It just means I cannot follow him.
There can be no more empty and petty gesture than blocking someone from following your Twitter stream. So at first I thought it was hilarious, and I took a screen shot and texted and emailed it to a few friends, as though to say, hey look at this.
But, as I have thought about it longer, I realized that this is actually not so funny. It is quite serious. There is a movement all across the county to hold prosecutors accountable for the decisions made by their offices. Right now, if a prosecutor is found to have violated the rights of the accused, violated Brady rights to disclose evidence that might acquit the defendant, or destroyed exculpatory evidence, there is little that can be visited upon them.
The Supreme Court has given prosecutors in Louisiana, for example, prosecutorial immunity for such acts as in the John Thompson case. It is rare and egregious that a prosecutor such as Ken Anderson in Texas, in the Michael Morton case, might face criminal charges.
The Vanguard Court Watch emerged after a number of cases, such as the Ajay Dev case, came to light in Yolo County that were troubling in terms of how they were prosecuted. The idea is, by the light of transparency, the public will become more familiar with cases that are problematic.
We get accused of a lot of things when we criticize law enforcement and prosecutors, but at the end of the day, we all need to remember that there are crimes that occur in our county, people commit those crimes, most of the time they catch the right person and those people most times should be held accountable for their actions.
But this is a human process. Mistakes happen. Mistakes happen more when the mainstream media only covers a dozen high profile cases a year. Our job is to monitor court cases for problems. Some of those problems can be quite serious. We have seen convictions overturned in this county for a variety of reasons.
But we also know that the court process is slow and that even those exonerated after prosecutorial and police misconduct can lose decades from their lives – people like John Thompson, Michael Morton, Maurice Caldwell, Brian Banks, and Franky Carrillo collectively spent over 100 years in prison for crimes that they did not commit.
No one likes to be scrutinized and criticized, but the DA’s office, from the time we began, has been one of the worst agencies in Yolo County in attempting to prevent us from monitoring and scrutinizing their office.
The blocking of access to their Twitter feed is just the latest in a string of attempts to stop the Vanguard from doing its job.
How much is that a problem for us? It makes it more difficult to get both sides of the story. We have to rely on the in-court accounts. There have been a few efforts to kick us out of the courtroom that were quickly dismissed by judges like Judge Fall, during one of the Galvan trials.
How important is our work? It seems like most of the mainstream media, except in very high profile cases, reports on cases, press releases and press conferences in an uncritical manner.
For example, last week, the DA’s office honored victims of crime and their heroes.
Mostly, we have no problem with the idea of honoring victims, in hopes that such acknowledgement will make it a bit easier for them at times to overcome tremendous hurdles in their lives.
But on this occasion, at least two selections for honorees gave us pause. We have to question some of the news coverage here, as well.
The Woodland Daily Democrat wrote, “Bob and Cathie Bullis, along with their granddaughter Sierra Watson, were honored as 2014′s Heroes of the Year. The family reported what turned out to be a rape at Davis’ Amtrak Station. While the perpetrator was eventually acquitted, they were honored for doing the right thing as witnesses and coming forward with what they saw.”
This was the trial that the Vanguard covered in January of 2013, the Thaddeus Sonne rape trial in which Mr. Sonne would be acquitted.
Those who recall the trial will remember that there were reports of two people having sex by the railroad tracks. The evidence against Mr. Sonne was ambiguous, at best. The victim claimed to have been so drunk that she did not remember what happened. The police caught a glimpse of what happened but failed to see the context of it. Were they watching a rape, as they assumed, or two drunk people struggling to have sex and suddenly realizing they had an audience?
Aside from the use of the word “perpetrator” to describe someone fully acquitted by a jury of 12, why honor Mr. and Mrs. Bullis along with their granddaughter as “Heroes of the Year?”
As the write-up stated, “They were honored for doing the right thing as witnesses and coming forward with what they saw. “
That sounds reasonable, except for one problem. The thought was that Ms. Bullis perjured herself on the stand, and then pressured her granddaughter Sierra Watson to change her story, as well. This was not just something that happened after the fact, it was actually a big to-do in the case.
The bottom line here is that, while it might be all right to honor someone as a hero for doing the right thing, even in a case which results in an acquittal, as in this case, the evidence was overwhelming that the people honored were actually culpable in what turned out to be not just an acquittal but a wrongful prosecution of an innocent man.
The fact that Ms. Bullis likely perjured herself on the stand and then pressured her granddaughter to corroborate that perjury should have led the DA’s office to select someone else to honor.
No one else in the media really pointed out these problems, despite the fact that the Sonne rape trial, at least in Davis, got widespread coverage.
Is it unreasonable that we question two of the honorees? Is that something that maybe the public should be aware of?
Of all of our branches of government, the courtroom is probably by design the least transparent. While the media covers a few cases a year in detail, most cases, most of the time, get little coverage, and what coverage they do get is in the form of police reports and DA press releases, that naturally and by design are part of the story.
I remain appalled that the DA’s office has been allowed to operate as it has with regard to transparency. The fact that Mr. Reisig has had no challenger in his two reelections should, on the one hand, give him comfort to open his doors, but on the other hand give us reason to question what else we don’t know.
—David M. Greenwald reporting