In the days following the arrest and charging of Samantha Green for the death of 20-day-old Justice Rees, there was anger and outrage throughout the county, and especially in Woodland. So many different kinds of things went wrong in this case, it’s hard to put a finger on just one.
One point that remains difficult to fathom and stomach was how the baby was allowed to remain in the custody of the mother when the baby was born with meth in his system. Confounding that is the reputation for Yolo County and Yolo County Child Protective Services for being among the toughest around in terms of willingness both to remove babies from dangerous situations and to terminate parental rights.
We have personal experience, both in terms of the willingness of Yolo County to act, and the reluctance of several other counties to do the same.
It is unfortunate that state laws, designed to protect the vulnerable children, act to shield public agencies like Yolo County from scrutiny. Yolo County put out a statement noting, “Due to the ongoing investigation concerning the death of Justice Rees, however, state law prohibits Yolo County from releasing any specific case records at this time.”
“As we and the community mourn the loss of this child, we are sympathetic to the media and the public’s desire for more information,” said Yolo County Counsel Phil Pogledich. “However, child welfare records are confidential under state law and, generally, cannot be released until the completion of a criminal investigation into the circumstances of a child’s death. We will promptly release all that can be disclosed following the completion of the criminal investigation in this matter.”
However, our chief concern at this point is the criminal matter. Many were stunned that Ms. Green was charged with involuntary manslaughter following the initial investigation and arrest. Remember, the reputation of the Yolo County District Attorney’s office is to charge everything to the hilt.
Instead, they stunned many by charging Ms. Green with a charge that would have allowed her to be released in, at most, four years. This fact belies the inequitable nature of our criminal justice system.
We just ran a series of studies on Juan Fuentes, who was sentenced to 16 years in jail. If we believe the account of events, Mr. Fuentes was involved in a fight with several other individuals against an individual who sustained no injuries, and Mr. Fuentes may have taken the victim’s bicycle.
Ms. Green was charged with killing her baby, and yet her sentence would have been one-fourth of the one given to a man involved in a fight and a robbery. And the jury didn’t reach a verdict on the assault charges in that case.
Naturally, the Yolo County Public Defender’s office wasn’t going to look the gift horse in the mouth. They submitted on Monday a motion for a change of plea. We don’t know what she would have changed the plea to, but the most likely outcome would have been a plea to the sheet.
In a plea bargain, there is an agreement, between the defense and prosecution, that the defendant would accept a charge or some charges in exchange for the remainder of charges to be dropped. In a plea to the sheet, the defendant pleads to all charges filed in the case, with no prior agreement regarding the sentence to be recommended to the judge.
The defendant, of course, has every right to plead guilty without the consent of the prosecution. The judge then has the sentencing guidelines to consider.
What happened in the case of Samantha Green is that the defense calendered the matter for Friday, indicating they would submit a change of plea. The very next day, the prosecution filed for an amended complaint with the stated intention to substitute the charge of involuntary manslaughter with murder.
Now the case went from a four-year sentence to a potential life term.
The Public Defender’s Office cried foul, arguing that this represented vindictive prosecution based on the timing of the DA’s declaration to file an amended complaint.
Deputy DA Robert Gorman argued that, while he agreed it had an appearance of potential impropriety given the timing of the change, the reality was that this was a complex case, very new, with an ongoing investigation. He maintained that they had new evidence that would support the charge.
There are, naturally, many people who will look at this crime and want to see the book thrown at the defendant here. Any time an innocent baby is the victim, the public’s sensibilities are violated.
There is no doubt in my mind that, based on the timing of the filings, the DA’s office filed for the amended complaint in response to the defense’s announcement that they were going to plead to the sheet. There can be no doubt there.
At the same time, I have little doubt –at least at this point – that, despite the fact that the DA was not willing to come forth with the new evidence, they probably do have a case for murder here. Ms. Green is naturally innocent until proven guilty.
Did they jump their timeline because of the potential for Ms. Green to plead to the sheet? Probably, but we’ll never be able to prove it. But, given the time, there can be little doubt that the DA expedited their filing so that they did not lose the opportunity to charge her with murder later.
Judge David Rosenberg was correct, the prosecution has a huge amount of discretion in how to charge a case, when to file charges, and the ability to file charges even during the trial if evidence warrants new charges. In the criminal justice system, the prosecutor is the single most powerful figure, because the DA’s office is the gatekeeper into who gets charged and with what.
In Yolo County there is little doubt that this prosecutor is going to charge most cases to the maximum extent possible. In this case, it was stunning that they would have initially charged her with something less than murder, not surprising that they would amend the complaint, and not surprising in the least that the judge would sign onto it.
As Mr. Gorman indicated, they will have to substantiate that charge at the preliminary hearing – that’s why such processes are in place and, given their public nature, they are the best and most fair option.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not point this out, the media spectacle was particularly unseemly to me. Why some cases end up high profile and not others is unclear. On Friday, the courtroom was packed with reporters.
Judge Rosenberg allowed tweeting from the courtroom by reporters. He granted one audio recording, a still photographer, and video footage without sound from one of the news stations.
The worst aspect was the video cameras and still photographers lined up on Third Street to capture the shot of Ms. Green being escorted by Sheriff’s Deputies from her holding cell to the main courthouse. One must wonder what public good that serves and, fortunately, it is a practice that will end as we get a new and larger courthouse, the opening of which has been delayed until June.
—David M. Greenwald reporting