It took the DA’s office nearly nine months to articulate a theory of second degree murder and implied malice in the tragic death of Justice Rees. The DA hid the ball for the most part, from the time they announced the additional charges until the point at which they deferred argument until the very end of the preliminary hearing.
The tactics clearly frustrated the defense. The defense had wanted to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment back in March and, when the DA’s office filed a motion to amend the complaint and change the main charge from involuntary manslaughter to murder, the public defender’s office moved for vindictive prosecution.
Judge David Rosenberg denied the defense the motion back in March, and, on Thursday, Deputy Public Defender David Muller requested a chance to respond to the prosecution’s case. Judge Rosenberg denied that, arguing that the prosecution always gets the last word as they bear the burden of proof.
A clearly frustrated David Muller blurted out that this was prosecutorial misconduct, Judge Rosenberg quietly said enough, and “I’m surprised at you.” But, given the secrecy in which this theory was guarded, the frustration of the defense is understandable.
The problem that the defense faces is twofold – there is the law and the sensibilities of the jury. A very reasonable question can be raised as to whether Ms. Green can get a fair trial in Woodland, where the community was up in arms over the tragic death of Justice Rees last February following a dramatic manhunt.
In an interesting twist, it was the defense who put the horrifying images of the lifeless Justice Rees lying in the thicket – still in his wet onesie, arms and legs exposed. The defense was arguing that the lack of scratches and marks showed that Ms. Green had taken the steps necessary to protect the baby in the harsh elements.
The family members in the audience quickly reacted to the shocking images with emotional responses and some had to leave the room. The reaction illustrates the exact problem the defense faces – Ms. Green acted as no reasonable parent or even any reasonable human would.
A jury will have to decide if she possessed a callous indifference to human life, no doubt fueled by the emotional turmoil of her crumbling relationship and the paranoia and illogic of the chemical addiction to methamphetamine.
Deputy DA Ryan Couzens skillfully crafted a coherent narrative of Ms. Green’s fragile mindset. Frank Rees was disloyal to her. He had requested that she have a threesome with him and another woman.
Mr. Rees then went to pick up this other woman to drive her some place. From Samantha Green’s perspective, she couldn’t understand why he would go be with this other woman rather than her and the baby.
She then seemed to craft this illogical and improbable scheme of going to the slough as a way to force him to come find her. We see here the disconnect between her mindset and reality, but as Mr. Couzens pointed out, meth use doesn’t become any sort of legal defense.
She took the baby to the slough, was clearly crawling around and bush beating her way through. The defense showed her body covered in cuts, scrapes, and scratches from head to toe. The baby she managed to protect from the thicket and branches, but not from the cold and not from dehydration or hunger.
She then abandoned Baby Justice in these elements and eventually went to the authorities. Mr. Couzens argued that she was not suffering from delusions as they were too inconsistent. Her explanations became increasingly fanciful and disconnected from reality. At first she was sexually assaulted according, to her statements to Officer Pelle of the Woodland Police Department.
When that story crumbled, she talked about government conspiracies, the Illuminati, mind control and other outside control. While Mr. Couzens plays this off as fabrication, it seems more likely meth-induced paranoia spinning increasingly out of control. Spend a few minutes with a hard core meth addict and you encounter these kinds of trains of thought.
The question as to whether this was murder or involuntary manslaughter will inevitably come down to a jury. It is hard to see a jury viewing those images of Baby Justice without coming down on the side of second degree murder.
Most observers were initially surprised by the involuntary manslaughter charge at the start. Given the record of this DA’s office, it is not surprising that they would charge this case as a second degree murder case – however, at the same time, the DA hasn’t always gotten the conviction they have sought.
Why the DA went to such lengths to play peek-a-boo with the charges and their theory of the case is something to ponder as we await a trial here. Was it strategy, gamesmanship, or a bit of both?
Mr. Couzens argued that, under an implied malice theory, Samantha Green had a duty to care for Baby Justice. He said that her emotions got the best of her and she made bad decisions because of them.
She should not have taken him out there, he argued. She should not have kept him out there and she certainly should not have left him out there. Mr. Couzens concluded, “Baby Justice died because of it.”
Judge Rosenberg, in his ruling, said that there was a lot of drama that came out over the four days of the preliminary hearing – jealousy, infidelity, meth use, and even more sensational were claims about the involvement of the Illuminati and the influence of population control by an outside power.
However, he said, “at the bottom, this case is about a 19-day-old baby that died.” He said there was little question that she had violated the basic duty of a parent.
He said there was sufficient evidence that she put the baby in harm’s way by going out into the cold slough with the baby wearing only a wet onesie with his arms and legs exposed.
Ultimately, the question of whether the People can prove that she committed second degree murder is one for the jury. Judge Rosenberg ruled that there was sufficient evidence to hold Ms. Green to answer for 2nd Degree Murder under an implied malice theory.
But the burden there was probable cause to hold her over – now the People must prove beyond a reasonable doubt. Again, a jury is going to have a hard time putting aside the emotion of the death of a defenseless baby, which is probably why the defense fought so hard to reduce the charges during the preliminary hearing and will likely do so again during a 995 motion (Penal Code section 995 motion to dismiss) to set aside the charges.
—David M. Greenwald reporting