We have not talked nearly enough about the troubling nature of the murder of Leslie Pinkston just under a year ago. Last week, the jury took less than three hours to deliberate and find William Gardner guilty of first degree murder with special circumstances. Most likely he will spend the rest of his life in prison.
The Vanguard Court Watch was established to monitor cases that are problematic, cases in which the prosecution wrongly charges or convicts, engages in misconduct, over-charges, etc. The Yolo County District Attorney’s office is generally considered one of the toughest in the state and Yolo County, which is in the middle in terms of crime rates, has one of the highest incarceration rates in the state.
So why are we here? Largely because, on this instance, for reasons that we do not completely understand, despite all of the warning signs in the world that William Gardner was dangerous and was continuing to torment his victim, the system failed to protect Leslie Pinkston.
Last week in court, the jury was played a collect call to Ms. Pinkston. It was one of about 1000 calls that Mr. Gardner placed or attempted to place to Ms. Pinkston over a 24-day period, as he awaited trial on charges that he stalked and threatened her at her home in Winters after she ended the relationship.
The call suggested a complex relationship. There were indications that, along with the complexity, she was terrorized by Mr. Gardner. As friend Katie Winkler described in a November 24, 2013, op-ed, “Harassed, stalked and threatened via social media, through email, phone and in person, Leslie tried to prevent and stop this behavior on her own and with the help of family and friends. She changed her number, she moved, she stayed under the radar, all in an effort to keep herself and her daughter safe.”
Despite all of this there were indications that she was also trying to help him find a way to post bail. Now, as anyone with any background in domestic violence would understand, this is probably not that unusual.
Their conversation in that collect call would quickly deteriorate into accusations, shouts and profanity, as Mr. Gardner accused the victim of not only procrastination but also infidelity.
Eighteen days after this conversation, Ms. Pinkston was gunned down by Mr. Gardner as she sat in her parked car outside of her work in downtown Winters. Ms. Pinkston was the one who paid the $375 bail reassumption fee.
The question we all must ask is where the authorities were, as Mr. Gardner was making over 1000 calls to the very person he had been stalking and threatening and for which he was initially jailed. Where were the authorities as Mr. Gardner repeatedly violated his “do not contact order”?
How come nobody stepped in to understand what was happening?
As Ms. Winkler wrote, “When it reached a point where those things were not enough, she sought protection from the police and the courts, pressing charges and obtaining a restraining order.
“William Gardner III was a convicted criminal with multiple indications of re-offending. He had prior domestic violence charges, prior threat charges and prior firearm possession charges and was facing more felony stalking and threat charges. He had failed to appear in court on numerous occasions. His prior acts coupled with the current charges clearly showed him as a danger and a threat to Leslie and her family. Yet he was given the opportunity to be released on bail time and time again.”
The final time he would be released was on a Friday evening and he shot Pinkston on Monday morning.
Asks Ms. Winkler, “Why? Why was this man allowed to be freed on bail? Freed on bail so that he could murder as he threatened to do? Why are we as a society OK with the fact that our domestic violence and anti-stalking laws protect the perpetrator more than they do the victim? Why are we content to continue to release dangerous criminals and refuse to hold them accountable for their actions?”
This is a complex situation, because it appears that not only did Ms. Pinkston need protection from Mr. Gardner, but also needed it from herself.
Death Penalty is Dead in California
Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig, who prosecuted this case along with Deanna Hays, one of his deputy DAs, made the decision not to pursue the death penalty in this case. A few years ago, Mr. Reisig decided to seek the death penalty in the Marco Topete case, a case in which, after a high speed chase, Mr. Topete lay in wait and ambushed Yolo County Sheriff’s Deputy Tony Diaz.
There are some interesting parallels between these two cases, but, ultimately, one of the biggest differences was that Deputy Diaz was law enforcement performing his lawful duties while Ms. Pinkston was an innocent private citizen sitting in her car getting ready for work.
Still, given the extended time and expense of a capital murder trial, it is not surprising that Mr. Reisig would opt against it here. After all, at the end of the day, Mr. Gardner and Mr. Topete will end up with similar fates – both locked in prison for the rest of their lives.
What this decision really shows is that the death penalty is largely dead in California, except for a few high profile cases where the symbol appears to be important.
It would be difficult to find a stronger defender of the death penalty than Mr. Reisig.
On July 25, 2012, Jeff Reisig wrote an op-ed in the local papers entitled, “Sometimes seeking justice demands the death penalty.” In that article he wrote, “There are some murders that are so horrific that we, as a democratic society, have concluded that the death penalty is an appropriate punishment.”
As we argued a few months ago, the similarities between the two murders make one wonder exactly what the difference was that made Marco Topete face the death penalty, but not William Gardner.
Recounting the brutal 2008 murder of Deputy Tony Diaz on June 15, Father’s Day, Mr. Reisig wrote that Topete “fired an assault weapon 17 times at Diaz, penetrating his bullet proof vest and fatally striking him in the chest.
“At the time of the shooting, Topete was on parole from state prison for shooting an unarmed man in front of a convenience store in 1998. He was also a validated gang member and had been previously convicted of multiple felonies under California’s three-strikes law.
“Diaz had attempted to contact Topete for violating parole by drinking and driving with his infant in his car. Topete led Diaz on a 100 mile-per-hour chase before abandoning his car and baby on a dark dirt road in rural Yolo County. Instead of pursuing Topete on foot, Diaz stayed with Topete’s abandoned baby.
“Minutes later, Topete, who was lying in wait behind the corner of a building with an assault weapon, opened fire while Diaz had his back to him. In October 2011, a jury convicted Topete of murder with multiple special circumstances and sentenced him to death. At the time of his murder, Deputy Tony Diaz was 37 years old. He is survived by his children, parents, siblings and many other family members, friends and loved ones.”
On November 18, 2013, Ms. Pinkston was sitting in her car, waiting to go to work on Railroad Avenue in downtown Winters, when she was shot. Mr. Gardner allegedly shot his ex-girlfriend four times, once in the head.
Like Mr. Topete, Mr. Gardner is also charged with enhancements of lying in wait and the intentional and personal discharge of a firearm causing death. Moreover, Mr. Gardner committed this crime while on release from custody on bail or own recognizance for a pending felony offense, and there were added enhancements to his charges of murder, including possessing a firearm by a person previously convicted of a felony and stalking.
That the DA didn’t seek the death penalty in this case speaks volumes to where the future of the death penalty lies in California.
—David M. Greenwald reporting