While I am hesitant to call the four-defendant gang case the worst miscarriage of justice we have seen in the last six years in Yolo County ‒ it would have a hard time, for instance, topping the 378-year sentence handed to Ajay Dev, it is at least in the conversation.
Despite the unnecessarily long and harrowing journey for three of the four defendants, the case ended with the possibility that they could get their lives back on track. They are young but seemed to be making progress. The same cannot be said for Juan Fuentes.
While the evidence is far from clear, I am certainly not convinced that Mr. Fuentes is factually innocent. However, I am completely convinced that justice has not been served here and the real tragedy is that a 16-year sentence means that what went wrong can really never be righted.
When I attended the preliminary hearing in this case, the evidence was thin enough to question whether the prosecutor, Robin Johnson, could even get a holding order. Judge Rosenberg ruled, after the lengthy preliminary examination, that there was sufficient evidence to issue holding orders. However, he acknowledged that there will be witness identification issues that will challenge the prosecution’s ability to gain convictions in this case.
While those words would be prophetic, Judge Rosenberg, who generally has a reputation as a fair judge, is no hero in this case. And the prosecutor, instead of cutting a deal, doubled down on questionable tactics.
This case started as a textbook example of witness identification issues. As one of the victims in this case told the Vanguard, it was dark and everything happened too fast. This problem was compounded by textbook mistakes by the police, contaminating the initial identification.
Ms. Beatty heard the officer picked up the radio and say, “Yeah we’ve got them because they’re eating their groceries.”
At this point she said, “I was angry thinking those are the f- idiots who did this.” So, after hearing the police officer state this, she said, “Yeah that’s them.”
This is a clear breach in how an officer should conduct eyewitness identification. They contaminated the identification process by proclaiming that they had the kids and they were eating the victims’ food. They failed to instruct her that it is important to make a proper identification.
She was angry, she figured that these were the guys, and without really identifying them, told that to the police.
But, quickly, she became convinced of her error. However, the police and prosecution compounded the initial mistake by doubling down. They subpoenaed her as a witness and, when she told the lady from the gang task force that she could not identify the individuals involved, she was arrested and held in custody to ensure that she testified.
Ms. Beatty said, “Up until I said I couldn’t identify the dudes, I was just going to be handed the subpoena.”
In the trial, when she tried to back off from her mistake, the prosecution played the gang card, arguing that her reticence was not due to questionable identification but rather due to witness intimidation by the gang.
The prosecution also played the gang card in this case, helping to secure gang charges on the three co-defendants. Was this a gang attack? Ms. Beatty told the Vanguard the fight happened because the kids called her a “b-“ and her boyfriend was a hot head.
She said that, during the fight, someone yelled “bosque” once. Cindy Fuentes, mother of Juan Fuentes, also questioned the gang charges, asking rhetorically how stealing someone’s Cheetos is for the benefit of a gang.
All of this questionable evidence and these tactics might have been mitigated, were it not for the fact that Juan Fuentes received a 16-year sentence.
Let us leave aside questions about whether the prosecution was able to prove that Mr. Fuentes stole the bike. His mother claims that he had his own bike and that the person captured on police vehicle on the bike had long socks, whereas her son’s arrest photos and the evidence locker showed he had short socks.
So let us leave that aside and assume that Mr. Fuentes was involved in the assault – and there is no evidence that he was. And that he took the bike – and again the bike was not found on him or even near his location.
Ms. Beatty described the attack as a fight. Mr. Nichols was not injured in the fight other than his shoulder coming out of its socket. But Ms. Beatty described that this was a function of his fighting, not a function of getting beaten up. It was an old injury and it popped out every time he fought, and sometimes when he didn’t.
Mr. Fuentes would receive a four-year sentence for the robbery. But the rest of the sentence was based on his prior strike. That was a car theft charge from when he was just 15. Granted it was only a few years earlier, but still, he was 15 at the time.
The fact remains that Mr. Fuentes will be locked up for 16 years for an incident in which he may have been in a fight, although he was not convicted on the assault charge and may have stolen a bike ‒ although the evidence there is still murky.
Attorney Robert Spangler did not speak to the Vanguard for this story. But during sentencing, he pled with Judge Rosenberg to disallow the previous strike during sentencing. Despite Judge Rosenberg’s reputation as a fair judge and his skepticism about the sufficiency of the evidence at the preliminary hearing, he ended up being a culprit rather than a hero in this case.
He had the ability to strike the prior strike from consideration. By doing that, he could have sentenced Mr. Fuentes to four years in prison – still a bit extreme given the circumstances – but he would have at least been fairly close to time-served.
Instead, Judge Rosenberg compounded the injustice of the matter, even as he acknowledged that this conviction was not worth a second strike.
And so the entire system has failed Mr. Fuentes thus far. The evidence was murky but was bolstered by a faulty eyewitness identification and the DA’s ability to make that stand, somehow, despite defense efforts to bring in an identification expert – Professor Deborah Davis from Nevada-Reno, who was a panelist at the Vanguard Dinner and Awards Ceremony last year on Prosecutorial Misconduct.
But, even given the identification problems, Mr. Fuentes was given a harsh penalty, considering the facts surrounding the incident and the uppermost boundaries of his involvement. Sadly, even the judge in the end failed to use the little discretion he had at his fingertips.
Mr. Fuentes now has to rely on an appellate system that is slow and often exonerates people at the point at which they would be able to be released. Small solace for Mr. Fuentes and his family. And so, a young man, just 20, faces the next 16 years in custody.
It is hard to call this justice and, in fact, this ranks among the worst injustices that we have seen in our time doing court watch.
—David M. Greenwald reporting