I kept asking the question as to why the DA outright dropped the charges against the five co-defendants. It didn’t make sense given the modus operandi of this DA’s office.
As I wrote at the time, “From the time that the plea agreement in the KetMoRee stabbing was announced, it was more than a bit of a head scratcher for me. While it wasn’t that shocking that the DA was willing to go to voluntary manslaughter and a stipulated 24-year sentence as opposed to murder and a life sentence for the main defendant, given the known facts of the case, the fact that they allowed the other defendants to walk was nothing short of stunning.”
Some took it that I was “questioning the DA’s decision to release the (co-defendants)” when in actuality, I was questioning the information we were missing that led to that conclusion.
The official explanation from the DA’s office was either not offered or rang hollow. Supervising Deputy DA Garrett Hamilton told the media back in November “that a number of factors prompted the change in direction in the case, including recent case law regarding gang-related crimes.
“California courts have published several cases in the last few years that have added challenges to the prosecution of gang cases,” Mr. Hamilton said.
One local paper wrote: “He declined to elaborate as to how those cases specifically affected the KetMoRee prosecution, but did note that ‘the sentence will never equal the loss the Gonzales family suffered on a weekend meant for a family wedding.’”
Finally a better explanation comes out – from Defense Attorney Rod Beede.
He described a very different situation from the start. This was not an attack by gang members against a wedding party, but rather a “bar fight that went badly.” One person made the decision to
turn it from a fistfight into a murder and that person was Mr. Vergara. But the other guys caught up in murder charges were only there.
As Mr. Beede wrote this week, “Eventually, both sides accepted that Vergara alone had administered the fatal blow, that an intoxicated member of the wedding party had inappropriately touched one or more of the Vacaville women, and that another of his friends had thrown the first punch.”
Mr. Beede points out: “Appellate courts have become more uncomfortable with young men being sent to prison for being associated with gangs in an altercation in which one of their members took lethal action, and have ruled that the primary motivation for the crime must be gang-related.”
This undoubtedly points to Mr. Hamilton’s half-hearted explanation, but this is a DA’s office more interested in spin and politics than the truth and justice. Justice gets arrived at in this county by coincidence, when the DA’s office has no other choice.
If the facts as told Mr. Beede are correct, the reality is the DA’s office could not have obtained convictions of the other five men in this case. And yet they persisted in trying for nearly two years until they ran out of options.
While justice ultimately prevailed in KetMoRee, it has been fleeting elsewhere. A decision by Judge Dan Maguire last week is troubling in the matter of Justin Gonzalez, sentenced to an effective life sentence for his purported role in the killing of Ronald Antonio in Woodland.
At issue in that case is not the question of guilt and innocence for Mr. Gonzalez, but the question of whether Mr. Gonzalez received a fair trial. Judge Maguire made a judgment call in that case, and, while he was troubled that the recording of Ruby Aradoz’s prior testimony was not turned over to the defense prior to her courtroom testimony, he ruled it to be a harmless error.
Here’s the thing: Judge Maguire may or not be correct on the letter of the law here, but the spirit of the law is badly damaged here. He is making a judgment call as to whether an additional piece of evidence that discredits the witness would or would not have proved persuasive for the jury. He ruled that, because the witness was already thoroughly discredited, one more piece of discrediting evidence would not have been decisive.
But how does he really know, and should not the defendant have gotten the benefit of the doubt, the benefit of having all evidence at his disposal at the time of trial? Shouldn’t the judge have erred on the side of the presumption of innocence when the stakes are life in prison? Even if the appellate courts are willing to fix this error, we are looking at potentially years if not decades in prison for a potentially innocent defendant.
And here’s the thing – where is the justice in this case? The only person who was able to place Mr. Gonzalez at the scene of the murder itself with a knife was Ruby Aradoz – in one of her testimonies. The same Ruby Aradoz who was initially a co-defendant (and sitting in the courtroom listening to all the testimony, not subject to witness exclusion rules). The same Ruby Aradoz who herself was facing a life sentence until the moment she flipped for the prosecution. And yes, the same Ruby Aradoz who instigated the entire incident.
Her testimony was so incredible that Judge Maguire stated she practically admitted under cross-examination she was a liar. And yet, she was the sole basis for Gonzalez’s conviction.
Once again, the truth only matters in these cases as an afterthought.
And now we have a massive gang raid in Woodland, where Ronald Antonio becomes the poster child for gang activities in that city.
US Attorney McGregor Scott (yes, the same McGregor Scott who investigated the Picnic Day incident) this week announced the arrest “of 18 federal defendants on narcotics and weapons-related charges as part of a multi-agency law enforcement investigation into coordinated criminal activity in Woodland, California.”
Operation Silent Night seems a lot like another gang raid in Yolo County, Operation Red Sash. The 2012 operation targeted mid-level to high-level members who were distributors of illegal narcotics, according to the release. But when it got to trial, it fell apart.
Two years later, the operation was an unmitigated failure. After all of those charges, the jury would find the co-defendants they tried not guilty on all gang-related charges and only two of the co-defendants were convicted of conspiring to sell drugs to undercover YONET agents, Gary Richter and Ryan Bellamy.
When the Vanguard asked one juror why they decided on the acquittal, he said, “There was just not enough evidence to pin the gang enhancements to the drug sales, it left us with a gap for reasonable doubt.”
The truth then, as now, was an afterthought. Sometimes the system works and protects the innocent. Sometimes, though, it does not. That is why the DA himself should be committed to truth and justice so that the innocent do not end up spending years in custody and years in prison for crimes that they did not commit.
—David M. Greenwald reporting