Sunday Commentary: The Presumption of Guilt?

Yolo County Courthouse - New

Yolo County Courthouse - New

Back in October, two tragedies occurred related to the drive-by shooting of a 13-year-old. First, a young girl was critically injured when a bullet pierced her home and struck her in the head as she was watching a movie on TV. She was left in a coma and, while she has come out of it, her family is concerned that she may never be the same.

That horrible tragedy does not excuse the miscarriage of justice that occurred. Based solely on the word of an informant with a long history of brushes with the law, authorities arrested Sonny Martinez. By all accounts, Sonny Martinez was in Stockton eating dinner with his family when this tragedy occurred and there are phone records that prove it.

Nevertheless, he was held in custody for nearly two months for a crime we believe he did not commit. Mr. Martinez is not perfect – he has his own history, he is a recovering meth addict, but he is also the father of young children trying to get his life back together.

On Friday, the case was dismissed against him. The DA is trying to save face by keeping open the possibility of refiling charges in February. The Vanguard has long criticized Ryan Couzens as the poster boy of the overzealous prosecution of the Yolo County DA’s office, and he lived up to his reputation this week when he threatened the wife of Mr. Martinez with jail time if she didn’t turn on her husband.

The work of the Innocence Project has shown the dire consequences of relying on snitches for prosecution of cases. A 2010 study by a professor at Loyola Law School found 45.9 percent of documented wrongful capital convictions have been traced to false informant testimony, making “snitches the leading cause of wrongful convictions in U.S. capital cases.”

By snitches, we “mean criminals who provide information in exchange for lenience for their own crimes or other benefits. The term ‘informant’ therefore does not include law-abiding citizens who provide information to the police with no benefit to themselves.”

Who the snitch is, we don’t know, since the affidavit for probable cause remains sealed, preventing scrutiny and transparency of law enforcement and the DA’s office.

In the scheme of things, Mr. Martinez should consider himself fortunate: he lost two months of freedom, but people have gone to prison for decades based on trumped up charges. That does not mean that we should let it go.

The first question that we need to address is whether the authorities ever really had probable cause to begin with in this case. It is highly unusual for a case to be dismissed for lack of evidence prior to preliminary hearing. A preliminary hearing, as we have noted previously, has an extremely low bar.

A preliminary hearing is like a mini-trial where the prosecutor is required to put forth evidence that there is probable cause to hold the defendant to answer for the charges. Probable cause could be a single witness that articulates to a police officer that they saw or otherwise knew the defendant committed the crime.

The burden of proof is so low that prosecutors rarely lose such hearings.

Given that the standard is so low, we have to ask if the DA’s office really had any evidence at all to even keep Mr. Martinez in jail – should the informant with a sketchy background have been enough?

The second part of this is a media critique – the media treated this man as though he were guilty, unless proven innocent.

KCRA TV on October 29 reported on the arraignment. Obviously the victim’s family had no way of knowing whether or not Mr. Martinez committed the crime or not. However, that did not stop multiple stations from interviewing the family following the arraignment.

KCRA reported, “Relatives who attended Martinez’s arraignment said they did not recognize him.” “I’ve never seen him before,” said Hope Penunuri, the victim’s grandmother. The station added, “Penunuri and other relatives also said they have no idea why anyone would target the home where she and her granddaughter live.”

“He has no remorse in his face. He looks just like the devil. He doesn’t have any sympathy for what he’s done to our baby sister,” declared the victim’s sister Desirae Valadez.

Similarly, the Enterprise quoted the sister as stating, “We’ve never seen him, and he looked at us and had no sympathy.” The grandmother added, “We need to know why he did this.”

The reality is that the family needed to know “if” he did this before knowing “why” he did it. The initial news coverage simply presumed Mr. Martinez’s guilt.

The Enterprise article quotes the victim’s family, who are obviously broken-hearted, but they had no way of knowing whether he did it, because the family was either in the home or not at the scene at all. The article then goes into Mr. Martinez’s past criminal history, then a description of what happened.

“The motive for the shooting, if one has been established, has not been disclosed by investigators,” the Enterprise wrote at the time. They then flash back to the family.

Even today’s article in the Enterprise does not exonerate Mr. Martinez. They note that the case was dismissed because “there’s insufficient evidence,” but then imply that the case is still alive writing, “(Deputy DA Ryan) Couzens also would not go into specifics about the evidence his office has, but confirmed there is potential for the case to be resurrected.”

On other hand, “Martinez’s attorneys have questioned the strength of the case since nearly the beginning, saying their client’s cell-phone texts indicated he was in Stockton at the time of the shooting, and that he had no motive to carry out the crime.”

The defense has of course claimed this from the start, and the Vanguard met with the family and largely corroborated the claim.

The Enterprise continues, “Still, Friday’s development dealt a blow to Valadez’s relatives, who met at length with Couzens and West Sacramento police detectives following the case’s dismissal.”

My feeling, of course, is that Mr. Martinez is innocent until proven guilty, and the DA’s office can’t even surmount a probable cause case against him right now. So, while I agree with Ms. Penunuri that the girl “deserves to have her justice,” they need to catch the person who actually committed the crime and, from all indications, Sonny Martinez is not the one.

The authorities have a lot to answer for here but it’s clear that the local media is not going to attempt to hold them accountable. Not only did the mistake deprive Mr. Martinez of two months of his freedom and rob his children of his presence, but it gave false hope to the family of Alize Valadez.

If all they really had was the word of a snitch, wouldn’t all involved have been better off if they had waited for additional evidence before making an arrest?

—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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7 Comments

  1. Tia Will

    I would find it interesting to hear how it came about that the information given by the informant was obtained. Did the informant come forward spontaneously and offer information with no conditions attached ? Was the informant approached by law enforcement simply making an inquiry about what he might or might not know about the situation ? If so, were there any conditions attached to the disclosure of the information ? Also of interest would be details of the information provided.

    I am aware that none of this will likely ever be made public, however, it seems to me that when a citizen has been incarcerated in our name as the people, then, as the people, we should have a right to the information that caused that loss of freedom.

    1. David Greenwald

      All of that is information we never get. That’s part of the problem – a prosecutor makes decisions that effect people’s lives and have little accountability or scrutiny on some of them.

  2. Miwok

    In the scheme of things, Mr. Martinez should consider himself fortunate: he lost two months of freedom, but people have gone to prison for decades based on trumped up charges.

    Is this in Yolo county? Do we have “prisons” in Yolo County? What a leap of logic… Who does this case remind you of? I kept thinking Nelson Mandela should come up in the comparisons after this statement?

    How would a judge not arrange bail for this person, if they had “insufficient evidence”? Are you looking at judges who enable these attorneys?

    I smell a lawsuit..

  3. Davis Progressive

    this is the da’s office at it’s worst – it takes people’s freedom away and there is no accountability.  lauren keene sure as hell isn’t going to call anyone in the da’s office out – that’s her gravy train.  the irony is her husband used to be a yolo public defender.

  4. mercy4all

    It seems to me remarkable that  David and so many readers simply presume that the District Attorney’s office simply listned to and only to an untested “snitch” charged the case and kept the defendant in custody for 2 months.  What actually happens is that when they think they have enough evidence they charge it and arrest the defendant.  After that he’s in court, usually  w/i 72 hrs and after that if he doesn’t waive time he gets his preliminary  hearing w/i 10 court days unless he waives time which on the advise of his skilled and esperienced attorneys  he must have done.   time in major cases can be both sides friend.  I’d render a professional opinion that in that time both sides developed a plausible alibi for Mr. Martinez.  Then Mr. Couzens dismissed the case w/o predjudice, a prosecutors right.  Maybe that will change  in february, maybe not, but the first line of attack for a competent defense attorney is always to go to the prosecutor.  To critizise them for doing the right thing w/o knowing at all really what was involved in the process is disengenous at least and irresponsible.  I’ve gotten a lot of cases, over 35 yrs dismissed by going first to the prosecutor.   Ultimately, never look a gift horse in the mouth I say.

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