The Vanguard Court Watch has been operating since the beginning of 2010, and over that time we have observed hundreds of cases and the most frequent complaint I would have is that there times when the District Attorney’s office takes an incident, a crime that has occurred, and over blows it.
That is certainly the case in the People versus Elijah Jackson. Mr. Jackson made really two mistakes. First, he failed to check in to probation as he was required to do and, second, he ran from authorities when they attempted to apprehend him at the Dunnigan rest stop on August 28, 2015.
A simple misdemeanor Penal Code section 148 was in order, and had that been the charge, Mr. Jackson likely would have plead to it, and been on his way.
The reason the case went to trial is that, in addition to mistakes that Mr. Jackson made that day, Sheriff’s Deputy Robin Gonzalez also made mistakes. But instead of the District Attorney’s office holding Deputy Gonzalez accountable for her mistakes, they doubled down and attempted to charge Mr. Jackson with felony resisting with force (Penal Code section 69) as well as Assault with Great Bodily Injury – Ms. Gonzalez’s broken finger.
However, the jury didn’t buy into it. Ten jurors were ready to acquit, but one hold out juror was simply not going to buy into it and the jury ended up hanging. Deputy DA Michael Vroman recognized pretty quickly he was probably never going to get a conviction on those charges in this case, and he accepted a plea to a misdemeanor PC 148 – which, again, is how the case should have been charged in the first place, and Mr. Jackson received time served.
Unfortunately, while rarer than other complaints against the DA’s office, this represents an ongoing complaint as well. One the first cases we covered was the case of the Galvan brothers, Ernesto and Fermin. They were brutally beaten by West Sacramento police officers to the point where one of the brothers has permanent disfigurement and brain damage.
However, they were charged with the fairly minor charge of felony resisting arrest. The first trial hung with a single hold out juror (11-1 for guilt). The second trial that we caught had the same result. They brought them back a third time, and this time, one of the brothers was acquitted on a charge, and the jury was split on the other charges, more in favor of acquittal than before.
When the DA was contemplating bringing the trial back for a fourth time, as Attorney Anthony Palik tells it, Judge Tim Fall, meeting in his chambers, asked Deputy DA Carolyn Palumbo “why are we here” and she mentioned that the brothers had a suit against the city of West Sacramento. Judge Fall turned to her and asked her if the DA’s office represents the People or the city of West Sacramento. Shortly thereafter, the DA’s office finally dismissed the case.
Deputy Robin Gonzalez in July of 2013 filed a lawsuit against her boss, Sheriff Ed Prieto. However, in May of this year, US District Court Judge Kimberly Mueller dismissed the suit with prejudice, meaning the plaintiff cannot bring the suit back. Judge Mueller in her ruling determined, “Even when construed in the light most favorable to Gonzalez, these accounts describe no objectively sexual color in Prieto’s behavior.”
Defense Attorney Dan Hutchinson, during both his questioning of the deputy as well as his closing, attempted to link the failed suit to her conduct and cover-up in this case.
Mr. Hutchinson argued that Deputy Gonzalez lied on the stand to protect herself from her superiors, and did not want more problems with her bosses as the result of this case.
“Why are we here, Ladies and Gentlemen?” Mr. Hutchinson asked. “We’re here because of a law enforcement officer more concerned about protecting herself, not her fellow officers and not the defendant as she claimed, and you can see that in the video, she made a stupid decision to do the leg lock and it caused her injury which resulted in charges.”
Whether one had anything to do with the other is hard to assess. What we can assess is that the DA’s case did not align with the facts that seemed to present themselves.
During the arrest, Deputy Gonzalez sustained a broken finger and has been taken off patrol duty due to her injury. According to Deputy District Attorney Michael Vroman, “that injury meets the element of serious bodily injury,”
The prosecution contends that “the defendant acted willfully, he knew what he was doing as he kicked, pushed and yelled obscenities at officers, he ran because he didn’t want to go to jail. He could have stopped his actions but he didn’t, he was in control.”
From our view, and probably the view of most of the jurors, what happened was Mr. Jackson made a bad decision in running from the police. He quickly was winded when he got across the highway and, even if he wasn’t winded, he probably recognized that there was nowhere to go.
CHP Sergeant Brent Shultz testified in an honest manner on Tuesday morning. He acknowledged that Mr. Jackson had submitted to the arrest, that they had handcuffed him improperly, he demonstrated on the defense attorney the proper way to handcuff, and he acknowledged that handcuffing of the subject in the middle of the arm was likely to be very painful.
He said that, once they had Mr. Jackson down, he was kicking and flailing as they tried to adjust the cuffs. Sgt. Shultz also testified that as soon as they had the cuffs on properly, Mr. Jackson stopped kicking and screaming.
That would seem to be strong evidence that Mr. Jackson wasn’t willfully kicking and flailing, but reacting out of pain.
It was Deputy Gonzalez’s actions which escalated matters and resulted in her injury. Sgt. Shultz testified that he never asked for assistance from Dep. Gonzalez. At the same time, he said that there are times when he has needed assistance but has not asked for it.
Nevertheless, she inserted herself in and attempted to place Mr. Jackson in a figure-four leg lock to prevent him from kicking. It was in the process of intervening where she ended up breaking a finger.
Mr. Hutchinson argued that Dep. Gonzalez’s injury was not the result of Jackson’s willful resistance. Instead, Mr. Hutchinson argued that Dep. Gonzalez was the cause of her own injury, jamming her own finger while “doing a maneuver she had no business doing,” while Mr. Jackson was already detained and writhing in pain.
Mr. Hutchinson argued that, when asked if the figure-four leg lock was common practice by law enforcement, CHP Officer John Kitamura said it was not common practice and he had, in fact, never heard of it.
Moreover, there is the police report that stated that Mr. Jackson was taken into custody without incident. And, of course, Deputy Gonzalez was hoping to pop her finger back into place – thinking it was dislocated rather than broken and hoping to make the situation go away.
Furthermore, Deputy Gonzalez testified that she never heard Mr. Jackson shout that he was in pain, but she changed her testimony when confronted with video evidence.
That video evidence was dash-cam footage with audio. This case clearly would have benefited from body-worn cameras that would have been able to show the jury and prosecutors much more clearly Mr. Jackson’s actions, as well as those of Dep. Gonzalez.
In the end, the jury was not convinced that Mr. Jackson’s conduct warranted felony charges of resisting and assault with great bodily injury. The eventual misdemeanor conviction seems about right for the level of conduct that Mr. Jackson did that day.
However, we remain concerned about the integrity of Deputy Gonzalez in this. We question her judgment both in filing suit against her boss, as well as her decision to intervene with the leg lock and her questionable testimony.
We hope that the Sheriff’s Department will investigate her actions more closely and determine whether Deputy Gonzalez represents a threat to the public. Given the obvious conflict of interest, it should be an outside agency that performs this investigation.
—David M. Greenwald reporting