When it was learned that the jury had hung on the single count of felony grand theft embezzlement, people who cared deeply about the mission of Fourth and Hope felt that this was the worst possible outcome. The charity organization would continue to get negative publicity and the outcome would remain unsettled.
When it was announced a day later that Leona Jull had accepted a misdemeanor plea over the objections of the prosecution, there was a lot of feedback that this was too lenient for the crimes that she was accused of.
In the Woodland Daily Democrat’s coverage of the case, they would quote Chief Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Raven as stating, “We are disappointed that the court unilaterally resolved this case by allowing the defendant to plead to the felony count charged with a promise that he would immediately reduce it to a misdemeanor.”
He added, “It was the people’s intent to retry this case to achieve the felony conviction, which we have always believed was justified.”
Deputy DA Jennifer McHugh, who prosecuted the case, was also frustrated by the decision by Judge Rosenberg.
“The people do not believe this is a misdemeanor,” she said as reported by the Daily Democrat. “Jull was given a position of incredible trust and unlimited access to money meant for the most vulnerable people in our community.”
I understand the frustration, and the decision by Judge Rosenberg is actually quite rare in this county. You rarely will see a judge overrule the prosecution on a plea agreement. But I believe it was it was the right call by Judge Rosenberg for a number of reasons.
From my perspective, I watched the closing arguments. I didn’t see the trial, but when I came out of those closing arguments, I told people the verdict could go either way. As it turns out, the jury itself was split down the middle 6-6.
The prosecution always believes that they can get the conviction. If the case is 10-2 or 11-1 favoring guilt, then I get it. They can probably refine their approach and get the conviction next time. Not always, as we saw in the Galvan brothers case several years ago, but enough of the time to justify the approach.
I was expecting, based on the comments of the Court Watch Interns and the media coverage, that this would be a simple black and white case. But it was not. There is a lot of gray area in there.
The DA came up with $32,000 in theft, but they identified just $4000 of that during closing and reduced it down to about $2200 by their rebuttal.
Part of the question focuses on intent. While intent to restore property to its owner is not a defense, and intent to deprive owner of the property is enough, the question still hinged on whether Ms. Jull really intended to deprive the owner of property.
And, as stated, there is a lot of gray area.
The prosecution wanted to argue that that you do not need a credit policy to know that stealing money from the homeless is wrong, but where their case fell was proving that she stole money from the homeless – or intended to do so – when she was making credit card purchases.
The bottom line, after watching the closing, I am just not convinced that the prosecution could ever prove their case and get 12 jurors to agree.
That is one of my criticisms with this DA’s office – they are often focused on the “W” rather than being realistic about their chances.
Judge Rosenberg explained his reasoning for accepting the misdemeanor plea.
He said California law allowed for good faith as a legal defense for grand theft, even if the good faith was to some degree mistaken or unreasonable. That is, a jury could accept the defense that the defendant stole only because she thought she had a right to the money or goods, as long as such belief was not completely unreasonable.
He said that the policies and procedures were amorphous and loose. Interestingly enough, he bought into the no credit policy defense. Therefore, he felt that the misdemeanor grand theft charge was fair.
I think Judge Rosenberg here was largely correct. The policies of the agency were a mess, as was the bookkeeping.
And yes, Ms. Jull was responsible for helping to create this mess. But is sloppiness tantamount to criminal conduct? I’m not defending it, rather trying to measure where the culpability lies.
I also think we have to look at the big picture here. Ms. Jull built that organization from a $400,000 organization to one with more than $2 million in annual revenue. She did a lot of good things for the community. And she helped a lot of people.
The organization now can move on. Ms. Jull is not a threat to the public or the community. In taking the plea agreement Judge Rosenberg also cited Jull’s lack of a criminal record as well as her decade of service to the homeless as other reasons for reducing the charge.
She will have to pay back about $2411, close to the amount that the DA argued was uncontested in closing.
Vanguard Court Watch Intern Patrick Shum, who covered the plea hearing, noted that, while the prosecution objected, Judge Rosenberg explained that he ordered Ms. Jull to pay $2411 in restitution for nine items that could be considered theft, such as Jull’s use of the charity’s funds to fix her home door or purchase a marine battery. However, the judge explicitly said he would not order Jull to pay restitution on the other things that she charged to Fourth & Hope, such as gas, meals, clothing and other repairs.
There are no winners here. A person who for 14 years was a stalwart in the community has had her reputation and life shattered. An organization that helps the homeless has its reputation damaged. They will have to work hard to rebuild community trust.
So all sides can move on now, but they will have to pick up the pieces of this.
—David M. Greenwald reporting