By Allison Ramsey and David M. Greenwald
The jury reached a verdict today in a two-week assault case. The case was plagued with inconsistencies and clear abuse by the assistant district attorney; the DA’s office used their power to overcharge indigent defendants. A “feisty” 97-year-old complaining witness was allegedly assaulted with a miniature Corona bottle that the DA claimed was a deadly weapon. After nearly two weeks of witness and expert testimony, the final verdict is in – and the jury seems to agree that this case was a case of overcharging.
The jury deliberated for three days before returning a unanimous verdict. The jury and the parties returned to the courtroom for the reading of the verdict. The first verdict the jury came to was that the Corona bottle was not actually a deadly weapon possible of causing great bodily injury. Instead, they found the defendant guilty of just assault.
Next, the clerk read the verdict for the second count, abuse of an elder. Again, the jury found the defendant not guilty, opting for the lesser offense.
The jury followed with their previous trend, determining that the mini Corona bottle was not, in fact, a deadly weapon which was also not a gun. However, they did find the defendant guilty of a second simple assault.
The alleyway argument that escalated to criminal charges was not assault with a deadly weapon, elder abuse, or assault with great bodily injury. The jury instead returned a verdict of guilty on only the lesser counts, all of which are misdemeanors. In a clear case of prosecutorial overcharging, the jury saw through the DA’s spectacle, choosing the lesser charges over the serious felonies.
On Monday, closing arguments were held, and Assistant DA Dane Reinstedt in his closing noted that the 97-year-old victim had lived along this road for 84 years, since she was 13.
The confrontation began as Ms. Ruelas, apparently drunk and sitting in the alleyway, refused to vacate when the 97-year-old told her to move along.
The brief altercation was captured on a security video. Ms. Ruelas approached angrily, yelling and enraged, with a beer bottle in hand.
Mr. Reinstedt argued that she made a three-pronged attack. First she struck the older woman in the face with a fist, second she attempted to de-stablize the woman, and finally she attempted to throw a beer bottle at her. However, her aim was off and it hit the woman’s attendant in her heavily-clothed hip and did little damage.
Most of these charges were not denied by the defense – Mr. Reinstedt pointed out. He noted that there was no claim of self-defense, no dispute that the woman was assaulted by the defendant, and he added that the woman was taken by ambulance for treatment with what he described as a small laceration underneath her eye and some minor bruising.
The question for the jury was whether these facts led to the charges filed here – assault with force likely to cause great bodily injury, elder abuse, and finally whether the beer bottle as used in this case amounted to a deadly weapon.
From the perspective of the prosecution, the fact that the victim was a 97-year-old woman in a walker made her very vulnerable. Had Ms. Ruelas connected with the bottle or succeeded in pulling the walker away from the woman, things could have gotten bad.
He pointed out that the effort to take the walker required both women to hold on and fight back in order to prevent it – with enough force to cause the attendant to have a sore shoulder the next day and is more likely than the thrown beer bottle, which hit the attendant’s hip and not her shoulder, to have been the cause of the soreness.
And it was here that Deputy Public Defender Nikki Solis disagreed with the prosecution. She pointed out that this case was about what did happen, not what might have happened.
Ms. Solis noted that the jury did not hear from a doctor or a medical expert about the victim’s injuries and she argued that was because she didn’t suffer any.
She noted that the woman had escalated the altercation by attempting to get Ms. Ruelas to move from the alley when she had done nothing wrong. When the defendant refused to move, the elderly woman threatened to call the police.
Solis pointed out that there was a lot of inconsistent testimony, with the attendant testifying she had been hit in the shoulder, but on the video it showed it to be more like the hip.
The DA, Solis argued, was relying on a lot of conjecture and speculation about what could have happened without much in the way of proven fact.
She argued that they likely charged the defendant for harming the wrong victim, and, while she might have committed battery against the attendant rather than the victim, it should have been simple battery – not assault with a deadly weapon.
Solis made two critical arguments here. First, that the punch was not a punch, but rather an accidental push. She was trying to push the phone away from the old lady and missed; this was an accident, not intentional.
To bolster her point, she showed photos showing that the woman’s face was not bruised, which she argued it would have been had the defendant been attempting to punch her or hit her in the face.
“Don’t do that – I’ve done nothing wrong,” Solis stated the defendant said as she attempted to push the phone away.
“The phone never falls,” said Ms. Solis, noting that the 97-year-old woman has weak and shaky hands at this point, indicating that the amount of force here was minimal.
Second, she argued that what the DA described as an overhand baseball throw was actually a toss off her back foot. It didn’t have enough force for the attendant to even feel it, and it was not even enough force to break the bottle.
She argued an accident doesn’t equal a general intent crime. She argued it’s a battery, and it only should be charged as a simple assault.
The jury clearly agreed here, acquitting Ms. Ruelas on all of the main charges, but found her guilty of two simple misdemeanor assaults and a misdemeanor elder abuse charge rather than felonies.