It has been over a month since Leona Jull, accused of more than $30,000 worth of embezzlement from Fourth and Hope, copped to a misdemeanor plea over the objections of Deputy DA Jennifer McHugh. Judge David Rosenberg accepted this plea, following the jury remaining deadlocked.
Ms. McHugh did not take well to the judge’s decision at the time and now has filed a motion to get the judge to reconsider it, calling the decision allowing Ms. Jull to plead to a misdemeanor to be outside “the bounds of reason.”
“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.”
She was not alone in her indignation. Chief Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Raven was quoted 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.”
The likelihood that Judge Rosenberg, a veteran judge who has spent more than a decade on the bench, will change his ruling remains small. 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.
The motion gives some insight into the jury thinking, as they hung 6-6. According to the prosecution, the jury told both attorneys that they had agreed that Ms. Jull committed embezzlement on at least four items, totaling over $1000, “but could not agree on whether there was a common intent and scheme to embezzle the items, an issue not argued by defense counsel.”
In order to prove felony conduct, the jury not only had to find that the defendant deprived the lawful owner, in this case the non-profit and its clients, of the property, but had the specific intent to do so.
But the prosecution misses a key point. 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.
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 card policy defense. Therefore, he felt that the misdemeanor grand theft charge was fair.
The ruling by Judge Rosenberg allowed the organization to move on and rebuild. 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.
There were a whole host of items that Ms. Jull was accused of using funds from Fourth and Hope to purchase. But Judge Rosenberg heard this all come out during the trial – is Judge Rosenberg likely to change his mind now?
But there is more here. The People are moving now not only to reinstate the felony charge, but also to have Ms. Jull pay restitution on the prosecution’s claims of $38,749 rather than the $2,411 that Judge Rosenberg imposed back in July.
This gets into strange legal arguing, because Ms. McHugh is arguing in her motion that Ms. Jull should pay back the entire amount, despite the fact that the prosecution did not prove all of the expenses at trial.
She argued, “However, even if such purchases were not presented because they cannot be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, the victim is still entitled to restitution for those thefts.”
She also attempts to shift the burden of proof, arguing that Ms. Jull failed to show that the expenses “were legitimate and approved purchases.” Ms. McHugh argues, “Until the defendant shows proof, in the form of receipts or other documentary evidence, that these were approved purchases, the victim is entitled to full restitution.”
While some of this is new, most of it is rehashed from evidence available to Judge Rosenberg at the trial. The jury clearly was not convinced by this evidence and neither was Judge Rosenberg.
Ms. McHugh argued, “She was stealing money meant to feed and clothe the homeless people in our community. This money came from grants and from donations of Yolo County citizens. The defendant was given a incredible amount of trust which she then abused for her own benefit. This was more than a simple oversight or misunderstanding.”
She would add, “The fact that the defendant made many positive things happen while she was the executive director does not excuse the violation of the trust placed in her.”
At the same time, it is time for Ms. Jull and the organization to move on. Ms. Jull has to rebuild her life and reputation and Fourth & Hope must do the same to regain community trust. The organization has lost grant funding, donations, and employees in the last year, and they have had to cut back by 50 percent on staff.
The prosecution seems unlikely to prevail in this motion, but threatens to drag this out further and that really appears to be in no one’s best interest.
—David M. Greenwald reporting