Eye on the Courts: The System Failed Leslie Pinkston and the Death Penalty is Dead in California

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

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Davis Progressive

    interesting silence on this one.  i think the da’s office and sheriff’s department have blood on their hands here.  no one wants to call them out for allowing ms. pinkston to get murdered.  we spent a lot of time questioning how marsh could slip through the cracks, this one much more egregious – 1000 calls, who the hell is monitoring this stuff?

  2. tj

    One opportunity to change the course of events was the night Gardner threw a chair through Leslie’s mother’s window.

    The Winters PD could have held Gardner on a 5150, and mental health treatment could have been started.  If Gardner were uncooperative with mental health, he could have been conserved and locked up in a mental hospital.

    1. Davis Progressive

      the easiest opportunity would have been with him in custody.  we also her the videos in court, but no one thought 1000 calls to someone who was supposedly off-limits to him was a red flag?

    2. PhilColeman

      An act of aggression or violence as described does not meet the provisions of 5150 W&I. Therefore, the Winters PD did not have such an option and still comply with the existing law.

      Even if this option had been exercised, the possibility of Gardner being held beyond the temporary hold time frame, and locked up in a mental hospital is almost non-existent. Present this scenario to any professional mental health expert for confirmation and the same assessment will be rendered, probably more pessimistic than depicted here.

      1. Dave Hart

        The provisions of 5150 need to be changed, don’t you think?  A former police chief could suggest to our new Assemblyman, Dodd that such legislation is needed.  If I throw a chair through someone’s window, I shouldn’t be allowed to walk around like nothing happened.

      2. tj

        The police and the courts do what they want.  People are held for lengthy stays – 5150 extensions – for much less than what Gardner did.  And who would object?  Patient rights is a joke, and in Gardner’s case it would have been a good thing.   Also, it’s likely that Gardner would have escalated if a 5150 had been initiated, proving that a 5150 was needed.

        My experience working in 3 counties is that it could have been done.

  3. ryankelly

    Victims should be directed to block the phone numbers coming from the jail or there should be a “do not call” list that Victim Witness people could list the phone numbers of the victims and then these would be off limits to prisoners.   There are many things that the victim could have done – the least of which would be to not take his collect calls and not post his bail.   It sounds like he just wore her down until she posted his bail.  It really could have helped if jail authorities could have done something to shut this down.  That, and the fact that they released him after hours without first warning authorities, the victim or her family, makes me wonder if our Sheriff is just running a very expensive babysitting operation over at the jail and not really taking steps to protect public safety.

    1. Grassroots

      When a call comes from prison or jail, you are asked if you want calls from the offender blocked. She did not and was trying to help get money for his bond.. She needed therapy to help end the co-dependency of this relationship that would in her death. The US is the only industrialized country in the world that still murders the murderer. How uncivilized!


    1. Dave Hart

      Oh, sure, make me responsible by knowing what’s going on here?  Nice try, buddy.  Well, it’s not my fault you’re posting under an assumed name and trying to stick me with being opinionated!

  4. Tia Will


    The Blame Game has several variations. One is to assign fault to an individual such as by stating that someone has “blood on their hands”. Unless this is true as in the sense of Kill Bill, it is a means to vilify someone and not look at the system in which they are operating because that of course is much more difficult to do.

    The second variation is not to identify an individual but to assign relative responsibility to various parts of a system that has proven inadequate in order to determine how to prevent similar failures in the future. In this case, there was plenty of “blame” or “opportunity” to go around, depending on how you look at it.

    1. Gardner could have appreciated that he had difficulty with a recurrent pattern of violent behavior and sought help with anger management.

    2. The women he had demonstrated violent behaviors with could have reported him to the authorities instead of just “growing apart” or protecting themselves or their relatives while allowing him to carry on with his violent behaviors, just with someone else as the victim.

    3. The authorities responsible for not enforcing a restraining order despite obviously violent behavior and repeatedly offering bail to an obviously dangerous individual.

    4. The victim for continuing to interact with and enable this very unstable individual.

    No one here is to “blame” ( except Mr. Gardner). All contributed to allowing this highly dangerous and volatile situation to develop. Unfortunately this is not an isolated or unique situation. Domestic violence is a common event in our society. Until victims of violence and their families and friends and police take a zero tolerance approach to this kind of violence with its tendency to escalate, and until the perpetrators of such violence come to understand early in their progression that this is unacceptable behavior and that early treatment of anger management and control of one’s emotions are effective in reducing violent behavior we will continue to have these episodes…..and will continue to play the first version of the “game.”



  5. Grassroots

    What is not yet understood by the public is that nature has made it possible to act without thinking. Children are not born with the capacity to cope with the emotions of anger or love. Those coping skills must be taught by a caregiver.  Uncontrolled love and anger can end in rape and murder. In fearful situations the brain is wired to cut off sending thoughts to the frontal cortex for logical review. Thinking about options is thought to interfere with survival while spontaneous responses more likely to increase survival.

    When you put that ancient system into modern civilizations there are times when the tragedy of an individual’s life is so destructive that they end up murdering to hold to the remnants of their life. For the overly indulged, they are not taught how to empathize with the point of view of the other.  They are often called narcissistic. To murder another is a cognitive challenge (How do I do this and not get caught?). There are no stop signs because there is no empathy. With the same insanity people tell themselves if they kill the murders they will be safe. Finland got rid of poverty to maximize community safety. Last I heard they had 2,999 inmates.

    Ending I share another sad story of abuse, poverty and murder:

    Jamarion a 12 year old African American boy is charged with murder in the Aug. 4 stabbing of 9-year-old Euro-American boy Connor Verkerke.

    At the same time, Anita Lawhorn and Jamarion’s step-father, Bernard Harrold, are charged with child abuse. Prosecutors say Jamarion had injuries to his legs and buttocks consistent with being hit by a belt or electrical cord.

    Jamarion, in the moments after the stabbing, allegedly told a 911 dispatcher he had stabbed someone. He told the dispatcher he hated his life and had “taken many pills.”

    “Please pick me up. I want to die. I don’t want to be on this earth anymore,” a neighbor standing nearby recalled.

    The state Department of Human Services has temporarily taken custody of Lawhorn’s other children because of “deplorable” conditions at the family’s home.

    And Americans would murder the murderer. I see no rationale in your thinking.

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