Having spent ten years evaluating cases where there are clear overcharges in Yolo County, my first reaction to the $1 million bail was skepticism. I don’t want to downplay the impact that the vandalism and desecration of the Islamic Center had on this community or on our Muslim neighbors, but buildings can be repaired and psyches rebuilt.
However, given what we now know about the mindset of the defendant, the actions of the district attorney seem more reasonable. The reality is that I think no bail is more appropriate here than $1 million bail, although the defense will point out that the defendant lacks a criminal history and that the instant offense does not represent a grave threat to the community. Plus, as a longtime resident of the community, she’s not a threat to flee.
I suspect the defense will lose any motion to reduce bail or even get her released on her own recognizance. That is the reality of the world we live in, where people filled with hate and anger, potentially afflicted with mental illness, carry out their dangerous fantasies in alarming frequency.
While on these pages I have often criticized Deputy DA Ryan Couzens for his own over-zealousness and, at times, flights into hysteria – he once arranged a full raid with helicopters and SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team on an Asian compound which yielded a small usable amount of meth and no weapons and then defended his actions in court saying that we do things differently in Yolo – he got it right in this case when he wrote in his motion to deny bail: “In connection with a search warrant of Ms. Cohelo’s (sic) residence her telephone and Twitter account were searched to reveal communications that raise grave concerns for public safety…”
We live in a world where Dylann Roof opened fire on a church in South Carolina, killing nine, and Alexandre Bissonnette killed six and wounded many others just over two weeks ago in a Quebec mosque. When someone proclaims admiration for people and chooses their first act to attack a local mosque, we can’t just shrug that off as harmless banter.
As Mr. Couzens pointed out in his motion:
- Defendant openly praised Dylan(n) Roof, convicted of killing nine African Americans in a church in South Carolina;
- Defendant tweeted (the day after the crime): “Had fun last night … im a hero and no one will ever know how funny it was”;
- In her messages dated shortly before the crime she was asked whether she had ever “killed anything?” to which she responded: “No but i want to i have dreams and aspirations” and “I would like to kill … many people”;
- In that same conversation, Ms. Cohelo was messaged: “I’m hoping for a race war so I could show my true talents,” to which Cohelo responded: “You’re so hot.” (Mr. Couzens misspelled defendant’s name);
- Her internet searches focused on topics concerning hate and violence including “throw jew down the well,” “gas jews,” “quebec mosque shooters” “alexandre bissonnette” and “hate is good”;
- The internet search included many for “davis mosque” the target in this case but also other potential targets like “danville ca mosque”;
- “Sandwiched” between searches for “davis mosque” was a search for “bombvest”.
The good news here is that, unlike in the case of Dylann Roof, Alexandre Bissonnette, Omar Mateen, or Syed Farook, we actually got a break and caught this before it potentially became a tragedy. Talking to people who went to high school with her a decade ago, we find that something happened between then and now. Nobody seems to know what that is.
There are all sorts of theories, but clearly she has gone into a very bad and dangerous place. Can she be helped at this point?
I understand that there is talk behind the scenes about some sort of restorative justice process.
I lean heavily on the words of Mayor Robb Davis here. However, it appears that the investigators held the information, that has now come out, rather close to their vests.
Following the arrest, the mayor acknowledged the harm done to the community, but also pointed to another way.
He told the Vanguard, “Though this case will be prosecuted by the state, in the person of the District Attorney, this is not a crime against a disembodied state.
“It is a crime against real people – members of the Islamic Center of Davis,” he said. “They experience the harms in the most direct way as their deepest faith identity is attacked.”
The mayor continued, “Leaders of the Islamic Center have already expressed that they have a need to understand ‘why.’ They desire the opportunity to face the offender and ask some questions. Questions like ‘why did you do this to us? What were you thinking? Do you mean us further harm? Do you even know who we are?’ They would like a chance to show the offender that they are human.
“I truly hope that in the coming period that the process of adjudicating this case will include the possibility of a victim offender conference during which these questions can be answered, the offender can take responsibility, and the harms can be made as right as possible. This is the vision of restorative justice that I believe is important to our community. Such a process would need to be voluntary but it holds out hope that the victims can have their needs met and the offender, having acknowledged the harms, can be welcomed back into our community.”
In my initial column that only appeared in the Vanguard Morning Newsletter, I took the view that, while this wasn’t a violent offense and nobody was physically harmed, people were hurting. But, as we found out on January 28, the community had their back and, for many, that was a huge relief.
If there was ever a case that could be resolved through a restorative approach, it is this one.
Clearly, this case is a whole lot more complicated than it seemed the morning after.
As I noted, the act itself should have been a red flag, as the suspect’s demeanor was very chilling. Watching the video, she was slow, methodical, almost casual as to how she entered the ground, how she methodically and meticulously inflicted damage on the windows and the bikes, and placed bacon on the door knobs.
At the time, it was a bit of noteworthy conduct. It was not what you might expect to see. Normally you would see someone run up, do the damage and get out of there as quickly as possible.
Her actions were cold and calculated. In hindsight, they reflect the actions of someone dangerous and calculating.
But there is also a lesson here for many. At the news conference, I was surprised that they believed that they could sustain a hate crimes charge. That led me to ask the police chief later if they had evidence beyond the instant offense – a question whose answer we now know is yes.
People were quick to dismiss hate crime enhancements as “stupid.” That’s generally been the belief of those on the right – a belief that I have never supported, even if some of the hate crime charges we have seen have been questionable in Yolo County.
This is a good case to point out why a hate crime enhancement is needed. Without such a charge, this is only a felony vandalism case. The reality is that this isn’t a vandalism case, it’s an act of terrorism – and, as we see from her communications, a first act.
Because we have hate crimes legislation on the books, we just might have had the chance to have stopped her before she actually physically hurt someone. Putting bacon on a mosque is not just vandalism, it is a form of terrorism, and we need to have the laws on the book to treat it as such.
For once, the system has worked as it is supposed to, and now we can talk about restorative justice rather than mourning another unspeakable tragedy.
—David M. Greenwald reporting