Sunday Commentary: $1 Million Bail Remains Unfair in Hate Crime Case

How to handle the matter of Lauren Kirk-Coehlo was always going to be a difficult call.  On the one hand, according to declarations from the police detective and Deputy District Attorney Ryan Couzens, she made statements in tweets and text messages threatening to kill people and professing support for mass shooters like Dylann Roof.

On the other hand, her actual crime of vandalism with a hate crime enhancement at the Islamic Center of Davis, while deplorable and vile, carries with it a maximum sentence of six years, is probation eligible, and the threats, while chilling, do not seem to have been close to being carried out.

How does one balance the danger of those statements against the lack of evidence of a more serious crime?

One way is to put a high bail on her – and I would argue that that is exactly what is wrong with the bail system.  True, a higher bail makes it less likely that a person is going to be able to make it.  But it also tacitly means that someone who can raise $100,000 for bail is somehow less dangerous than someone who cannot.

In a Friday column, Columnist Bob Dunning writes, “I have long thought that we are blessed in Yolo County to have Superior Court judges who consistently apply the law in a fair and even-handed manner.”

I don’t think most defense attorneys who practice in Yolo County, if they are being candid, would agree with this.  My observation after eight years in the courtroom is that, when it comes to making big calls, Yolo County judges nine times out of ten will side with the prosecution.

Now, in fairness, Judge Dan Maguire that Friday when he made the decision in the hate crime, actually sided with the defense two times out of three.

First, he denied the prosecution’s motion for no bail.  That turned out to be an easy call as the California Constitution grants the right to bail except under very specific circumstances.  Deputy DA Couzens attempted to stretch greatly to get to those circumstances, but his argument was frankly ludicrous, trying to call the vandalism of the Islamic Center an act of violence on a person.

Judge Maguire, in a separate case that we covered, did grant the defense a mistrial in the Eric Lovett case.  How rare was that?  We had never seen a jury verdict overturned by the judge who had presided over the trial in the time we have covered cases, and no one we had talked to had seen it in a good deal more time.  Given the thousands of trials over the years, this was a truly unique circumstance and it took a major supreme court case in the intervening time between the trial and the hearing to make it happen here.

I am still rather appalled by some of the motions in which the judges in Yolo County ruled for the prosecution over the defense.  One that sticks out is Judge Dave Reed allowing the interrogation, that led to the confession, of 15-year-old Daniel Marsh for hours without an attorney or parents present, and allowing a general request for counsel to stand.

So, no, I don’t agree that judges in Yolo County are particularly consistent or fair in applying the law.

On the issue of bail itself, there are uneven standards.  Frank Rees, who is charged in connection with the death of Baby Justice, is held on half a million dollars bail.  So too is the wife of the Orlando shooter.  A defense attorney told me she recently had a case in another county where bail was $250,000 on a kidnapping where the individual faces 27 years (4.5 times longer than the maximum sentence in the Rees case).

While Mr. Dunning is correct that the higher bail brings with it a lesser chance that the accused will make bail, he also correctly points out that “some people will make bail and will be back in the community, despite the presumed danger that led to the high bail in the first place.”

But it is more than that in this case.  This is not a life sentence case.  The individual will be out of custody at some point, whether it is after getting probation or after completing a prison term – even the six-year maximum sentence.

The defense made the point during the bail hearing that the judge could impose conditions to reduce the risk to the public.  In fact, because the judge granted bail in this case, he imposed them.  Is GPS monitoring, no weapons, and no communication with the Twitter users enough?  If not, the judge could have put more conditions on.

The chance that she was going to get out on a reduced bail and follow through on her threats seemed minimal.

And yet, the judge was not inclined to reduce bail here.  Why?  Well, because if the judge held her in custody unnecessarily, all he had to deal was with a few self-righteous opponents of monied bail complaining about fairness.  If he released her on a lower bail and the unthinkable happened, he’d have to deal with thousands if not tens of thousands of people second-guessing him.

I get it, he took the risk-averse path that most judges would take, but I don’t think he made the right call here.

The biggest problem that we will have to deal with is that some day in the next six years, probably a good deal less, Ms. Kirk-Coehlo will be out of custody and the most important question will not be what her bail was, but rather what we did to make sure that she would not be inclined to follow through on those unthinkable threats.

—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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11 Comments

  1. Tia Will

    the threats while chilling, do not seem to have been close to being carried out.”

    No crime is every “carried out” until after the fact. That does not mean that the individuals is not dangerous. The day before the Marsh murders, no one was alerted to the possibility of the actions even though there were those to whom Mr. Marsh had confided his troubling thoughts. As a doctor, primary prevention is always the best. Humans do not have a good ability to assess risk accurately and should not be trying to do so based on comparisons with total sentence or other arbitrarily assigned factors, also based on assumptions about risk for recurrence of various behaviors.

    If he released her on a lower bail and the unthinkable happened, he’d have to deal with thousands if not tens of thousands of people second-guessing him.”

    As someone who has had a career in which I have had to live with the life and death consequences of my actions, I doubt that having to deal with people second guessing him is uppermost on the judge’s mind. The fact that he might have to live for the rest of his life knowing that he could have prevented the “unthinkable” and chose not to may be a much more salient factor.

     

    1. David Greenwald

      She didn’t have weapons, or concrete plans at the time of her arrest.  Moreover, if she is released she’d be on GPS and monitored.  Not likely she’d be able to acquire weapons and do something while out on release.

  2. Tia Will

    David

    I understand your points. And yet a couple of thoughts come to mind for me.

    1. Weapons such as bombs are not readily accessible in our society. However, knives and guns are not so difficult to obtain.

    2. I think that the question for each of us to ask ourselves is, would we be feeling differently about the degree of danger if the group that she had been communicating with where a jihadist group, or a gang  ? Are we subconsciously making allowances in our minds because she is “one of us”, white, the daughter of a former judge, a former student at Davis High ?  Not expecting any responses, just think that it is more comforting to see danger in “the other” and perhaps downplay the danger presented by the familiar. However, the cases of Dylan Storm, Adam Lanza, the Columbine shooters and more distantly Timothy McVeigh stand to illustrate that those that we do not suspect in advance may be equally as lethal as “the other”.

    1. Howard P

      Tia… the materials to make effective bombs are readily available… easier to get than a gun… Boston Marathon, Murrah Building (Oklahoma City/ McVeigh) [nearly 1,000 killed/wounded] immediately come to mind.  No waiting period/background checks for any parts/ingredients of the ‘devices’ used… and the “recipes” for the bombs readily available on the internet…

      1. David Greenwald

        My point is that if released, she’d probably be living with her family, under house arrest or at least GPS monitoring, with local and federal police watching her more closely and getting hopefully psychiatric counseling, I just don’t see that under those conditions she represents a threat to society.

        1. Tia Will

          David

          And do you suppose that is how she would be treated if she were a Muslim male or if she wore a hijab ?  I am not arguing for punitive treatment. I am arguing for consistency and awareness of our own biases and how we perceive danger.

      2. Tia Will

        Howard

        I stand corrected on my own misperception of relative danger with regard to weaponry. And feel that this strengthens rather than weakening my overall argument that we humans are not particularly good at relative risk assessment.

        1. Howard P

          In general, I agree… but with knowledge, rational analysis, and understanding, I do believe many are quite qualified as to ‘risk assessment’ judgement… many are not… one of the reasons I differ from those who want to rely on the “wisdom of the people”… depends on the topic, to be sure…

        2. Howard P

          As to ‘weaponry’… the fertilizer (ammonium nitrate), and other ingredients easily available, and all have legitimate uses… see,

          https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=brownfield+redevelopment&*

          The truly deadly component was the motivation and psyche of the bombers, not the ‘weaponry’…

          Meant as education, not criticism…

          I can’t take a 1.5 inch knife on an airplane… box cutters were used to overtake some of the planes involved in 911… now banned.

  3. Ron

    David: “So, no, I don’t agree that judges in Yolo County are particularly consistent or fair in applying the law.”

    To say something like that (in a separate paragraph, as well) takes some confidence, regarding one’s understanding of the law.  (The statement really stood out, to me at least. Even with the examples you cited.)

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