The Samantha Green case has been one of the more followed trials in recent years. On Friday, after over a day of deliberations, the Yolo County jury found Ms. Green guilty of second degree murder.
Some people have expressed surprised that the jury found her guilty of second degree murder rather than a lesser homicide charge. The problem that we have is that, in this case, you have an innocent baby as the victim and, at best, the mother showed indifference to the sanctity of human life. Most juries are not going to give someone the benefit of the doubt in such instances.
This view is backed up with a quote from one of the jurors in the press: “Her child was dead at the end of the day. Once we read the law, we thought it was murder.”
The question of whether they are right or not might be more subjective than we would like.
The DA’s case, once they articulated it, makes some sense. Under a theory of implied malice, Samantha Green had a duty to care for Baby Justice. Frank Rees, the father and Green’s fiancé, was engaging in infidelity. Now Ms. Green has this tiny baby, and Mr. Rees is asking her to engage in three-way sex and, under the DA’s theory, she attempts to win him back, and tells some convoluted stories.
In the end, she took the baby out to the slough with only a tiny layer of clothing. She stayed out there in cold temperatures. She should not have gone out there. She should not have kept him out there and she should not have left him out there. The baby died because of those actions.
Under the law, the defendant acted with implied malice if she intentionally committed an act. In this case, it was the sequence of events of going out to the slough, staying out there, and leaving the baby out there.
A reasonable person would regard that the natural and probably consequences of the act were dangerous to human life. And at the time she knew that the act was dangerous to human life and she deliberately acted with conscious disregard for human life.
The jury instructions note, “Malice aforethought does not require hatred or ill will toward the victim. It is a mental state that must be formed before the act that causes death is committed. It does not require deliberation or the passage of any particular period of time.”
In the end, this ends up being a bit more of a judgment call than I think we would like. The thin reeds here are whether she was cognizant enough in her actions to really understand the implications and the natural and probable consequences of them, and whether her actions were deliberate in their disregard for human life.
Deputy DA Rob Gorman told the media, “We knew all along she committed 2nd degree murder… (Her) meth use showed she was aware of the risk of meth.”
I find that a curious quote, because, as some might recall, the DA’s office did not initially charge her with murder. In fact, a number of people heavily criticized them at the time for not charging murder.
The defense had wanted to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment back in March 2015 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 2015, but it took the DA’s office another nine months before articulating, at least publicly, a theory of second degree murder and implied malice in the tragic death of Justice Rees.
While I do believe that the DA has used second degree murder in cases where negligent homicide was probably a more apt charge, in this case, I think it is a much closer call.
I am much more troubled by the slow response of Child Welfare Services (CWS, long known as Child Protective Services, or CPS) to remove the baby under the circumstances. Yolo County Social Worker Valerie Zeller testified about her decision to return the baby back into the home of his parents, even though he was born testing positive for methamphetamine in his system.
While Ms. Zeller placed a protective hold on the baby, she allowed it to remain with the parents.
CPS was worried about the baby not being in the home very often, about the housing situation, and about Frank Rees’ unwillingness to use CalWorks and food stamps. Ms. Zeller testified that, when talking about drug use, Ms. Green seemed to understand the consequences of daily methamphetamine use and the dangers it presents to a child.
However, following the February 9 meeting, Ms. Zeller did not meet with the family again until the day that Ms. Green went missing.
Valerie Zeller testified that, while Samantha Green said the drug use was a one-time thing, “we knew from the test results and history that probably wasn’t the case.” What seems even more concerning here is that this was not simply a judgment mistake by the social worker, but rather a function of policy for the department.
She testified that heavy drug use was not a sufficient reason for removing the baby from the home. She explained, “Drug use is not enough (of a) just reason to remove a child. I usually use the example of how many functional alcoholics we have … we have to look at a lot of different factors.”
This is troubling, and hopefully the county will look further into this matter.
In the meantime, Samantha Green will be sentenced on November 1 to at least 15 years to life, the mandatory sentence for second degree murder. Ms. Green is 25 and would eligible for parole in roughly 13 years. In a way, this might be the best thing for her – should she make good progress and stay clean, she might be able to be released from prison around that time.
This was not a violent, malicious act. It was a drug-induced series of extremely bad choices – but time might be on her side here.
Deputy DA Ryan Couzens was quoted saying that this case was “testament that meth is not a victimless crime. It devastates families, destroys lives.”
While certainly meth is a horrible drug, I think it’s only accurate to point out that most people on meth do not murder their children – therefore, I think something else was going on here.
—David M. Greenwald reporting