On Friday, Judge David Rosenberg rejected a defense call for a new trial and ruled that the jury’s verdict was supported by the evidence. Samantha Green was sentenced to 15 years to life. The judge would state, “You put your child in harm’s way. And because of your actions your child is dead.”
But Public Defender Tracie Olson would argue, “This is the most unfounded jury verdict that I’ve seen.”
With the sentencing complete, the gag order was lifted for the first time. In her view, there was “no conscious disregard for Justice’s safety.” In her motion for a new trial, she argued that what the evidence showed was not murder.
The judge, she argued in her motion, made two critical errors – first allowing the expert Dr. Joan Gerbasi to testify beyond the scope of her expertise, as well as bad jury instructions.
In her motion, she also argued “the district attorney has been guilty of prejudicial misconduct during the trial.”
“There is insufficient evidence to support the verdict of second degree murder rendered in this case,” Ms. Olson argued in her motion. “Samantha Green was acutely intoxicated on methamphetamine when she entered the Ridge Cut Slough with her son, Justice Rees, on Monday, February 23, 2015.”
The evidence presented in trial was overwhelming as to “her consistent drug use in the days leading up to Justice’s death.”
Ms. Olson noted the testimony of Marilyn Swanson as to the condition of Ms. Green when she observed her on February 20. She “testified that when Ms. Green came by her house the morning of Monday, February 23, 2015, to pick up one of the children for school, Ms. Green looked to be high and appeared to be in the ‘worst’ condition Marilyn had ever seen her. “
Ms. Olson writes, “Marilyn Swanson felt so strongly about her observations of Ms. Green’s condition on February 23, 2015, that, after she testified at trial the first time, she called the District Attorney’s Office to complain that the magnitude of Ms. Green’s condition was not properly emphasized. The People acceded to her request to be recalled to the stand so that she could testify again and emphasize her original testimony as to how significantly affected by street drugs Ms. Green appeared to be.”
Dr. Matthew Soulier would testify that “when Ms. Green entered the slough on February 23, 2015, she was suffering from methamphetamine induced psychosis characterized by hallucinations and delusions that her baby was in danger and she needed to protect him.”
Dr. Joan Gerbasi, who examined Ms. Green and the relevant records gathered or produced by law enforcement, “testified that when Ms. Green entered the slough, Ms. Green was suffering from methamphetamine intoxication with perceptual disturbances.”
Her testimony was critical in that she testified “that she did not believe that Ms. Green entered the slough due to jealousy and clearly stated that she and DDA Couzens had disagreed on that point during their discussions prior to her testimony. She opined that while jealousy was probably the original motivator for traveling to Knights Landing, it did not adequately explain why Ms. Green crossed the water with her baby.”
The defense argues, “The only reasonable explanation for Ms. Green’s actions in entering the slough is that she was acting in response to her methamphetamine intoxication.” Here the defense notes that she crossed the canal water with her baby on a February day, traveling through bushes in bare feet “while purposefully avoiding the open spaces that are clearly evident in the aerial photos on record with the court.”
She noted that Green had many superficial injuries that she suffered as she fought through dense brush, “when she could have traveled a lot less precarious path.”
Ms. Olson argues, “It is against human nature to crawl through thick, thorny bushes to get to a destination when a much easier path is mere feet away, unless one is acting illogically and in response to powerful delusions while under the influence of drugs.”
But she also points to “Justice’s lack of the same superficial injuries,” which she argues “prove that he was protected by Ms. Green during this time, just as Ms. Green protected him as she crossed the slough water and held him as high as she could so he would not be submerged.”
“This conduct is all consistent with a delusion that she was fleeing with Justice, hiding from the world, to protect him from bodily harm,” Tracie Olson argues. “This conduct is not consistent with the prosecution’s theory that Ms. Green was looking for Frank Rees because she believed he was cheating on her, or that she was hoping Frank Rees would somehow find her in the slough thereby proving his love and his commitment to his family.”
She adds, “First of all, no one in their right frame of mind would believe that Frank Rees was ever in the slough to begin with. Likewise, no one who wanted to be found would hide in dense brush on the other side of a wide canal in an area that was, for all intents and purposes, inaccessible to everyone else on the planet.”
“She was in the slough because she was delusional. Plain and simple,” the public defender writes.
Ms. Olson later notes that the prosecution relied mainly on circumstantial evidence showing that Ms. Green “possessed the necessary knowledge for a second degree murder conviction.”
However, she argues that the jury had the ability to draw more than one conclusion from this evidence, and they are instructed that if “one of the conclusions points to innocence, it was incumbent on the jury to accept the conclusion that points to innocence.” She argues, “The jury did not follow this instruction. “
“Ms. Green became voluntarily intoxicated on methamphetamine to the point of legal unconsciousness. She could not and did not make decisions with proper awareness of her actions. Justice died as a result. Ms. Green is guilty of involuntary manslaughter only,” she argues, asking that the court order a new trial or reduce the verdict to the lesser included offense of involuntary manslaughter.
Tracie Olson maintains that the court erred on instructing the jury “that it could only consider evidence of voluntary intoxication on the issues of unconsciousness and witness credibility.”
As Ms. Olson points out, that decision “(foreclosed) the jury from using this evidence to evaluate, among other things, the reasons Ms. Green entered or stayed in the slough.” She argues, “The instruction was confusing and might have misled the jury into believing that it had to disregard any evidence of voluntary intoxication influencing Ms. Green’s decisions to enter or to stay in the slough, thus prejudicing Ms. Green.”
Ms. Tracie noted, “Over the defendant’s objection, the prosecution’s expert, Dr. Joan Gerbasi, was allowed to testify that jealousy was probably the original motivator for traveling to Knights Landing.” This, she argued, was “outside the scope of Dr. Gerbasi’s role as an expert in this case,” not to mention “impermissible opinion on an ultimate issue.”
She argues, “Upon logically analyzing Dr. Gerbasi’s opinion regarding Ms. Green’s actions, it is clear that Dr. Gerbasi was merely relying on the evidence presented to her and reaching a conclusion that a juror of average intelligence could reach on his or her own. Ms. Gerbasi was not utilizing her training, experience, or studies in reaching her conclusion that jealousy was a motivator for any of Ms. Green’s actions, but was examining evidence in the same way as the trier of fact.”
In the end, the jury probably came to their verdict for a variety of reasons, including being misinstructed on the critical law, misreading the evidence, and of course the fundamental problem that the defense had throughout this case – the victim was an innocent and helpless baby and Ms. Green’s choice to choose drugs over caring for that baby played a critical role in the death.
As the prosecutor, Deputy DA Ryan Couzens, pointed out on Friday, Ms. Green was well acquainted with meth – as she had experienced the use of the drug herself and her parents both struggled from drug addiction. “She knew about every single possible consequence of using methamphetamine and decided to go on a bender,” said Mr. Couzens.
In typical “Couzens fashion,” he would point out, “It is disgraceful that in this state we appear to treat plastic bags as a greater evil than methamphetamine.”
Never mind that a plastic bag ban carries only civil penalties while meth is still a criminal violation, whether misdemeanor or felony.
—David M. Greenwald reporting