Opening Arguments in the Lovett Trial

YoloCourt-5

By Monica Velez

After Judge Daniel Maguire granted Deputy District Attorney Robin Johnson a day to get past her medical emergency, on March 16, 2016, opening statements and jury instructions were finally given in the trial of defendant Eric Lovett.

Mr. Lovett is being accused with assisting an individual after a crime of attempted murder, dissuading a witness and gang allegations. The People also have the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that these crimes were done with criminal intent in order to promote the interests of a street gang.

Ms. Johnson began her opening statement by reminding the jury of the allegations and describing the types of people they were going to hear testify. She said there are going to be people who are currently in prison, who’ve been to prison and who may have been granted immunity in order to testify. The jury was going to learn about the culture of criminal street gangs.

Ms. Johnson then went into the background story of how Mr. Lovett fits into the shooting that happened on November 18, 2014.

Michael Reyes shot Ernie Sotelo multiple times, hitting the back of his arms and legs, and his back. Mr. Reyes had pulled up in a white Mustang while Mr. Sotelo was riding his bike, along with his ex-wife, on their way to see his parole officer. Mr. Sotelo never made it to that meeting.

The police officers investigating the case were trying to find the shooter, and they turned to social media, figuring out that Liberty Landowski and Mr. Reyes were somehow connected.

The officers got a search warrant to track Ms. Landowski’s phone, and they located her at a hotel in Sacramento. First they found Mr. Lovett outside of the hotel, and he had a room key on his person.

The key opened the room to where Mr. Reyes, Ms. Landowski, and Lisa Humble (another co-defendant) were. In the room, the officers found the gun that was used to shoot Mr. Sotelo. Reyes, Landowski and Humble were eventually tried and convicted of the crime. The DA withdrew the charges against Lovett, and refiled in this separate case, adding a charge of dissuading a witness.

At a preliminary hearing in 2015 for the original case, Mr. Sotelo testified in court about what happened to him the day he got shot. The same officers on the case claimed to have seen Mr. Lovett making threatening gestures toward Mr. Sotelo while he was on the witness stand.

Mr. Lovett is being accused by the defense of making gestures with his fingers, signifying that he would slash Sotelo’s throat if he continued to testify. Ms. Johnson said that Mr. Sotelo said he did not see any of those gesture, but Ms. Johnson told the jury that was not the point.

The recording of the preliminary hearing will show all this evidence in itself, said Ms. Johnson, and would find Mr. Lovett guilty of dissuading a witness. She said that the testimony put forth would also prove how Mr. Lovett and Mr. Reyes are affiliated with a gang.

Deputy Public Defender Martha Sequeira then presented her opening argument, starting by telling the jury that she needs them to come into this case with open minds. She listed all the empty holes Ms. Johnson had not told the jury.

For one, what Ms. Johnson did not tell the jurors is the personal history Mr. Reyes and Mr. Sotelo had with each other, having nothing to do with being in a gang. The dispute between Mr. Reyes and Mr. Sotelo stemmed from the money Mr. Reyes’ mother and stepfather owed Mr. Sotelo but had failed to pay back.

Ms. Sequeira said that the money Mr. Sotelo gave them was to pay a bill, not for buying “dope.” Mr. Reyes found out about this dispute, trying to figure out what really happened.

After the police got involved, Sequeira said, is when the police made it a gang issue rather than what it really was, a personal issue.

“[The police officers] focus all efforts in making this a gang case,” said Ms. Sequeira.

Another fact Ms. Johnson failed to mention, according to the defense, was the reasoning behind acquiring the search warrant to track Ms. Landowski’s phone. The officers said that they were worried she was being held against her will, when they both already knew, because of social media accounts, that Mr. Reyes and Ms. Landowski were quite familiar with each other.

Ms. Sequeira pointed out that, when they found Ms. Landowski at the hotel, they did not ask her if she was upset, scared or being held against her will.

She urged the jury to look at what the case really is, and said that, instead of law enforcement holding people accountable for what they do, they put all their energy into making a case something that it’s not – in this case, a gang issue.

The first witness to take the stand, lasting almost the rest of the day, was Mr. Sotelo.

Ms. Johnson asked him if he wanted to be in court testifying, and he replied no because he does not want to be involved in this matter due to safety reasons.

Mr. Sotelo said he fears for the well-being of his family, and has reason to believe his testifying can lead to harm being done to them. He said he showed up because he “doesn’t wanna be locked up anymore.”

Ms. Johnson then asked Mr. Sotelo about violent occurrences that happened to him after he testified at the preliminary hearing in 2015. There were three instances.

The first time was in West Sacramento, where people got out of a car and started to call him a “snitch.” Mr. Sotelo said he started swinging at the first person who approached him, and soon after he was outnumbered. Mr. Sotelo said he did not know any of them.

The second time was at a bus stop in downtown, when a person he had never seen before called him a “snitch” and said he should “just kill himself.” Mr. Sotelo and the man got into an altercation also.

The third time was at Mr. Sotelo’s house, as more people he did not know came out of a black car, resulting in another physical altercation.

Ms. Johnson started asking Mr. Sotelo about his past criminal history. Mr Sotelo admitted he has been in jail and prison “quite a few times.” He is currently on probation for the possession and sale of methamphetamines.

Mr. Sotelo’s priors ranged from the 1990s to current day, with varying charges including weapons charges, grand theft auto, possession for sale and spousal abuse.

He has never been convicted for a gang crime, but talked about how he was in a gang since the age of 16, up until 2003, when he dropped out because he did not want to keep getting incarcerated and wanted to be able to be with his family.

During the testimony of Mr. Sotelo, an officer who investigated the case, Officer Anthony Herrera, walked into the courtroom and sat by Ms. Johnson. During the morning recess, Ms. Sequeria argued that Officer Herrera should be excused from the courtroom.

His presence would be “completely prejudicial toward Mr. Lovett,” said Ms. Sequeria. She said that is true especially in front of the two witnesses scheduled for court that day (Mr. Sotelo and Ms. Landowski) because they are both on probation, which status could be at stake.

Ms. Sequeira said that Officer Herrera’s presence can “color” the witnesses’ testimonies, resulting in trying to satisfy what the officer will want to hear. Ms. Johnson argued that Officer Herrera was an expert on this case and was there to assist her, and was not doing anything wrong.

After Judge Maguire took a moment to read over some cases, he ruled that Officer Herrera would not be a reminder of repercussions or untruthful testimony, especially since the witnesses should only be telling truthful testimony whether he is present or not. The judge did not exclude Mr. Herrera from the courtroom.

After the morning recess Ms. Johnson continued asking Mr. Sotelo about his past time in a gang. Ms. Sequeria objected, on the basis of the relevance of his life in 2003 having anything to do with the current case at hand. Many questions were overruled by the judge.

Mr. Sotelo described what happened between him and Mr. Reyes’ stepfather and mother. Mr. Sotelo was friends with the couple and would hang out with them in their West Sacramento apartment complex. He loaned them $30 to pay a bill and when he asked for his money back, Mr. Sotelo said the stepfather acted like he had no intentions of paying him back.

Mr. Sotelo and the stepfather got into physical altercations two times regarding the money. The first time, the stepfather spit in Mr. Sotelo’s face and that’s when Mr. Sotelo started swinging at him.

The second encounter was in front of a store where he saw the stepfather, and at the time he was with his son. Mr. Sotelo said he did not want to handle anything in front of the stepfather’s son, but the stepfather had another intention. As soon as his son turned the corner, he started fighting with Mr. Sotelo.

About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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