By Crescenzo Vellucci
A little known case once secreted away in a Yolo County courtroom is now a whole lot bigger after one of the most prestigious private law firms in the U.S. Tuesday joined the Yolo Public Defender’s Office to represent former University of California, Davis, student Noah William Benham.
Not only did Yolo County Superior Court Judge Paul Richardson decide that the firm could join the defense, he agreed with the Public Defender in a key pre-trial motion Tuesday.
First, the judge approved Morrison & Foerster, known as “MoFo” – with 16 offices and more than 1,000 lawyers nationwide – as pro bono co-counsel for Benham, now a graduate student at UC Berkeley and charged with felony battery on a police officer.
Benham was arrested at the Jan. 13, 2017, UCD appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos, British commentator and author associated politically with the Alt-Right. The controversial figure never spoke – protests closed the lecture hall down.
When Benham turned down a plea deal on minor misdemeanor charges, the DA added a felony battery charge. The battery reportedly came when an officer said he incurred a half-inch scratch on his arm/hand when arresting Benham, who is now charged with four crimes.
But Deputy Public Defender Peter Borruso argued there’s no video or body-cam footage of the alleged assault on the officer, demanding – and the court agreed – that the Yolo County District Attorney
must cough up the UC Davis Police Department’s Body-Cam Policy and Procedure Manual. Deputy District Attorney Ryan Couzens had fought to not provide the manual for more than two months.
“Defense believes that this information is impeachment and exculpatory material as to the three officers who conveniently had their body cam turned off while an unrelated officer had (his) body camera footage engaged only to catch the end of the ‘scuffle,'” said Borruso in his “Motion to Compel.”
Joshua Korr of Morrison & Foerster also argued to the court that “the footage could prove our client’s innocence…if (the officer) disregarded the (body cam) guidelines it could be used to impeach him. It is a ‘he said-he said’ case.”
The judge agreed, noting “the manual in material evidence…it has the potential to impeach (the police).”
“We’re happy with the judge’s ruling that the DA must release the body cam manual. We believe it will help vindicate Mr. Benham’s innocence. The truth will come out,” said Borruso.
It’s more than a little unusual that a private law firm works as co-counsel with a public defender office, but nothing is usual in Benham’s case.
Benham was at the protest and, although he didn’t block doors like some did, he was “swept up” by campus police and jailed. He has no criminal record. Only a claim that maybe his arrest led to a half-inch scratch on the arresting officer’s hand.
This case could become a felony trial over that alleged scratch.
But, Yolo County is no stranger to felony trials, as pointed out in a Vanguard story in September (https://www.davisvanguard.org/2017/09/budget-data-shows-public-defenders-office-resourced-disproportionate-yolo-county-charging/ ), the Judicial Council’s 2016 Court Statistics Report noted Yolo County has more felony trials in absolute numbers than Alameda and Fresno.
Yolo County, the report noted, has more than twice the number of trials per 100,000 than Kern County, which is next highest. It has nearly four times the number than Los Angeles and about five times Sacramento.
The Vanguard also reported that not only are there many more deputy DAs than public defenders, the DA office has about five times the number of investigators, clerical and other support than the PD office (21 for the PD v. 82 for the DA).
But that apparent “advantage” hasn’t stopped the PD office from holding its own. And now Benham – who maintains he won’t plead guilty to a crime he didn’t commit – has two top law “firms” in his corner. The Yolo County PD and “Mo-Fo.”
Next up: A “Pitchess” motion to ascertain if there’s anything “negative” in the files of UCD police officers. On tap Nov. 21, 10 a.m. A preliminary trial is scheduled for Dec. 4, 10 a.m. Both in Dept. 13.