It is really too bad that they don’t allow cameras into courtrooms – I think the public needs to see Deputy DA Ryan Couzens in action in order to have a proper perspective on him. He was Jeff Reisig’s henchman in the last DA election. But he is best known for all sorts of weird antics in court – sometimes disappearing down strange rabbit holes, always being thorough and combative.
I first got to know his work during the Gang Injunction Trial in 2010. My most vivid memory of Mr. Couzens was way back in 2011, there was a trial in Yolo County in which Mr. Couzens brought in multiple jurisdictions, organized a SWAT raid, with helicopters and the works and they busted into this compound which was supposed to be an Asian Gang drug operation.
The result of the raid was caffeine pills, powder that turned out to be ibuprofen, and the kicker – 1.4 grams of methamphetamine. Far from an operation to support a gang – the value of the meth packaged was about $40.
But Ryan Couzens, not backing down to the jury, doubled down in his closing arguments.
He told the jury that this was a gang, selling drugs. He said that it is irrelevant that Sacramento or Stockton would charge this crime as a misdemeanor. He said that it is on them, and it’s their problem. He said this is Yolo County and we do things differently here.
He told the jury he was a very aggressive attorney especially about gangs and crimes – he said the same for his office. He said that if he allows “specks of methamphetamine” to go unchecked, if we allow a fledgling gang to go unchecked, just because it is a fledgling operation, that “that’s throwing in the towel.”
The jury didn’t buy it. At times Ryan Couzens can be very effective and persuasive. At times he can be his own worst enemy. On Thursday, he was both.
Mr. Couzens took a hearing that had a single witness, and figured to last at most an hour or two, and dragged it out for nearly six hours in the Habeas case for Ajay Dev. Talking to some others, I heard that if he had stopped at noon, he probably would have made his point and been reasonably effective. He didn’t know when to stop – even when the judge said she had heard enough.
There are all sorts of variables here. As he explained it, this was going to be his only opportunity to question this witness, Bahvendra Yadev, a retired schoolmaster from the Village of Boria.
Mr. Yadev definitely gave him some openings to attempt to exploit – and to varying degrees, he succeeded.
Mr. Yadev, for instance, made the mistake of attempting to insert his opinion on rape leading to “soil” the family’s reputation, which Mr. Couzens dutifully exploited into a question about that being a motivation for the alleged victim to deny the crime against her.
Mr. Yadev gave him an opening by opining that rape victims wouldn’t “hold their head up” or “talk so proudly.”
Mr. Couzens also tried to insinuate that Mr. Yadev telling the girl to stay in Nepal and get married was an effort to dissuade a witness, just as he claimed that Ajay Dev had done.
He attempted to suggest the fact that Sanjay Dev had paid for the witness’ flight to the US to testify and money donated to his school were financial incentives to play ball with the Dev family.
But how much of a dent does this really make on the core contention that, in 2004, the alleged victim denied that there was a crime, and admitted to being angry about the passport snafu she blamed on the family? Furthermore, there was tension between Ajay and the alleged victim because of how she was conducting herself – she was drinking, partying, and sleeping around with young men when the family clearly wanted her going to school.
There were clear cultural differences between the American view of sexual assault and Nepali views that Mr. Couzens tried to exploit, but Mr. Yadev never really wavered in his core claims.
Had this been in front of a jury, I think the petitioners, led by Ed Swanson and Britt Evangelist, would be more concerned. But a judge is less likely to buy into the insinuations that ended up largely unproven.
At one point the judge allowed the repetitive questions by Mr. Couzens, saying that she would allow him to keep asking until he gets what he thinks he wants to hear. Later she was done with the line of questioning trying to insinuate pressure from Sanjay Dev and the family on the witness. Mr. Couzens continued anyway, not reading the judge’s body language.
It is also important to situate Mr. Yadev’s testimony because, while he left himself open to cross-examination, Mr. Couzens really never touched on the core contention – he simply muddied the water.
The question is going to be – whether the petitioners here can get all six of their witnesses in to testify that the alleged victim admitted in real time that she was making this up as a way to get back at the Devs because she felt they were overbearing and because of her legal troubles in Nepal – issues that were not allowed to be raised at trial.
Mr. Couzens attempted to argue that Mr. Yadev was close to Ajay Dev and his family, but, as was pointed out on re-direct, he is actually closer to the complaining witness and hers.
Moreover, while Mr. Couzens might have planted some questions in the judge’s mind, he never really discredited the man’s story.
Moreover, perhaps the most important witness would be the sister of the alleged victim, who sent a Facebook message to Sanjay Dev in January 2018.
She said: “[AV] want to take revenge and get to Amrika [sic]. . . . The only way to come to Amrika [sic] was to come testify against Ajay uncle. We did not know that he will be put in jail long time. Now AV say that if she helps she will go to jail and get deported. . . . AV has lied many times in the past. She had no choice. Police say to her they will help if AV testify for rape. . . . We know that she was not raped. . . . We also tell AV to tell the truth that this never happen but she scared now.”
The real key for Judge Janene Beronio is going to be the ability of the petitioner to put together the patchwork of testimony into a coherent story that is compelling enough to make her throw out the conviction from 2009.
That is going to be a tough task – particularly with Ryan Couzens there for hours trying to throw mud at the witnesses.
—David M. Greenwald reporting