When the legislature passed AB 109 a few years ago, suddenly the state came out with a lot of statistical analysis. As Don Saylor put it on Saturday night, “AB 109 did us a lot of favors.” He said, “It allowed us to get information that we really didn’t have before.
“When we started digging into the information available, I was shocked. When you see Yolo County in the same club as Kern County for incarceration rates, it’s stunning,” he said. “When you see us being one of the top five counties in California for sending our people to state prisons, that’s not where we want to be.”
This certainly got a lot of people’s attention during the event and after the event. The other piece of this, of course, is that Yolo County is not a top county in crime rate. The last time I looked at the crime rate statewide of Yolo County in comparison with other counties, it was in the middle tier.
So the criminal justice challenge for Yolo County is how it can be in the middle tier in terms of crime, and yet near the top, fourth in the state, in per capita incarceration rate and at the top, first in the state, in per capita trials. The answer in my view, having run a court watch for eight years in Yolo County, is overcharging.
On Saturday night, Deputy Public Defender Martha Sequeira talked about her case involving an unnamed 18-year-old defendant accused of gang crimes, who she believed was innocent. Deputy Public Defender Monica Brushia talked about the trial of Quentin Stone accused of causing the death of his three-month-old baby. In these cases, we are talking about individuals charged with crimes who are factually innocent.
As many who have read this site over the years know, there are a number of individuals that the Vanguard believes were wrongly convicted in Yolo County – Ajay Dev, Greg Zielesch, and last week we discussed the Halloween Homicide where we believe prosecutors misidentified the shooter.
While tragic, those kinds of cases are comparatively rare. However, the case of overcharging is much more frequent. Overcharging means that the individual did something but the charges put in
place by the prosecutor are not justified by the underlying facts of the case.
The case of Lance Ornellas-Castro was in my view overcharged – and while we can debate whether the defendant should have been completely acquitted of all charges or tried for voluntary manslaughter, I believe that the DA’s case unraveled in part because they tried it as first degree murder.
In order to prove first degree murder under normal circumstances you have to show that the individual intentionally killed the individual with malice of forethought. It was premeditated. The problem here is that the facts of the case did not lend themselves to premeditation.
So the DA introduced the felony murder rule, which says if you are in the process of committing a felony, a death that occurs during the commission of it is another felony. That meant that the prosecutor had to establish that this was a robbery gone bad rather than a misdemeanor drug deal.
And that is where the case fell apart on them.
There were three key pieces of evidence that this was a robbery. First were a series of text messages between Mr. Ornellas-Castro and his supposed accomplice, Jorge Garcia. But Dan Hutchinson, the deputy public defender, was able to show the jury that, while most of the texts talked about not having much money and finding ways to get it, none of them actually talked about robbery.
Second, the DA had Mr. Garcia cut a deal to turn state’s evidence against his friend Mr. Ornellas-Castro, but that went sideways during cross-examination and he denied for a time that it was a robbery. The prosecutor tried to resurrect the witness, but he had shot his credibility and the jury likely saw his testimony as a way to save his own skin.
Finally there was the police theory about a phrase, “hitting licks.” A witness translated that phrase to mean committing a robbery. But Mr. Hutchinson was able to show that that theory was concocted by Sheriff’s Detective Thomas Hayes.
The evidence for a robbery and therefore the first degree murder was exceedingly weak, especially with the strong defense put on by Mr. Hutchinson, and the jury pretty quickly acquitted Mr. Ornellas-Castro of the robbery – and thus the only thing left on the table was voluntary manslaughter.
The key question – as they articulated in court – focused on the reasonableness of self-defense for the main charge.
The jury foreman indicated that the jury would benefit from additional arguments on whether Mr. Ornellas-Castro acted reasonably when he shot the victim, as they sat in the car and the victim made an arm movement.
At this point, a conviction on voluntary manslaughter with the use of a gun enhancement would still lead to a 21-year-sentence.
As I argued at the time, Dan Hutchinson, in the second round of arguments, simply outclassed the prosecutor Deputy DA Melinda Aiello. While all that is true, I believe that the shady series of witnesses, from the alleged accomplice to the police officer shown to lie on the stand, really undermined the prosecution’s case. So when it came down to assessing the reasonableness of Mr. Ornellas-Castro’s actions, the jury was already inclined at this point to see the facts through the eyes of the defendant rather than those of the prosecutor.
As I said at the time, personally I believe that the blatant dishonesty of the prosecution’s witnesses – in particular, Detective Hayes – played a huge role in this verdict.
And none of that would have been necessary had the prosecution stuck with involuntary homicide. By overcharging the case, they undermined the more credible charges.
—David M. Greenwald reporting