By Juan Garcia Urrutia and Crescenzo Vellucci
SACRAMENTO – Jeffrey Powell’s nearly three-month-long trial on five counts of burglary wrapped up Thursday, and apparently became the first trial in the post COVID-19 period to finish in Sacramento County Superior Court.
The trial really only took three days, but it began a couple of days before the state courts closed in mid-March. Thursday, it came to an end for Powell.
Coincidentally, Sacramento County announced late Thursday that the courts will resume criminal jury trials June 15, implementing a “plan for safe access,” which involved “strict enforcement of safety precautions in order to protect jurors, staff and members of the public who enter Court facilities.”
The court said that anyone that is sick or has COVID-19 symptoms is banned from the courthouse, and they are “significantly reducing the number of jurors being asked to report for jury service at any one time,” making facial coverings mandatory, provide mandatory non-invasive temperature screening, insisting on physical distancing in elevators (two people per elevator), and increasing routine cleaning on high-touch surfaces and common areas including elevators, courtrooms, jury assembly rooms and restrooms.
“Trial by jury is more than just a fundamental Constitutional right in the United States and California. It is a critical safeguard of individual liberties and helps keep us anchored to our constitutional principles,” read a statement from the Superior Court, adding, “The Court cannot provide jury trials without the participation of citizens. With our plan for safe access to the justice system, the Court is ready to safely welcome this critical part of the justice system back into our courtrooms.”
In Powell’s trial, the jury was never visible but it appeared the 12 jurors and alternates were seated throughout the courtroom, not just in a juror box but in the gallery. It was unknown if they wore masks, but court personnel, both lawyers and witnesses did wear masks—Judge Laurie Earl did not wear a mask.
To Deputy District Attorney Gregory Hayes, it was an open and shut case.
“You’re going to be the first jury to return a verdict during the pandemic in Sacramento County,” Hayes said to the jury in his closing arguments. He then spoke for about one and one half hours about how Powell is charged with five counts of first degree burglary. Powell is being accused of entering six homes in the Elk Grove area back in 2017. He was caught on camera using credit cards stolen from those homes at Walmart and other stores.
But the defendant spent about two hours on the stand Thursday morning, attempting to explain that he was guilty of using stolen property, but not burglary.
“I thought I was going to die,” said Powell, swearing that when he was interrogated by law enforcement, he was “high on meth. I was loaded.”
He repeatedly denied on the stand that phone numbers, with incriminating texts and messages, were his: “That’s not my phone number,” he swore.
Powell, who has previous burglary arrests and a conviction from more than 10 years ago, admitted, “I know what I’m guilty and not guilty of. I was just buying stuff with the credit cards.” But he said he didn’t steal the cards, and then use them because “that’s what gets you in prison.
“I know what I look like, African male and I’ve been to prison,” Powell said, although he was reprimanded by the judge for saying “s**t” repeatedly during testimony.
“I was high on meth but I recall answering their questions. They told me that they had my prints and DNA. I knew they were lying,” said Powell.
Later, Detective Justin Parker admitted he did lie, but said it was legal and just meant to influence the defendant to “talk freely,” adding, “I wouldn’t call it lying.”
The defendant denied that it was his room at a motel where stolen articles and his jacket were found. He later said he had rented it, but broke up with his girlfriend and so he canceled the room. Powell was asked about an insurance card belonging to one of the victims found at that room.
“What do I look like…why would anybody steal an insurance card or piece of paper from somebody else? I’ve been to the pen for burglary…no one would go inside a house to steal a piece of paper,” he laughingly said.
Powell said most of his conversations were “stupid,” adding that “they were asking me stupid things and I was answering with stupid things. They knew it was stupid. But I’m telling you the real story now.”
Powell’s lawyer suggested to his client that he may be “reluctant to ID anyone for fear of retribution,” to which Powell said, “I wouldn’t know who’s doing stuff out there.”
In his close, Hayes repeatedly noted that the evidence presented throughout the trial proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did commit the crime. Evidence included fingerprint matches and witness testimony.
DDA Hayes reminded the jury of the witnesses, including those that gave testimony. Witnesses included the residents of the homes that Powell was accused of entering and burglarizing by stealing items.
Next, prosecutor Hayes explained that property was found in the defendant’s hotel room, and that witnesses identified the items as belonging to them. Property that was found included credit cards, jewelry, and other documents—even a photo album.
And the most damning evidence was how Powell was seen on surveillance video using the stolen credit cards at various stores such as Game Stop. He explained that banking information corroborated with the date, time and locations that Mr. Powell was seen using the credit cards.
DDA Hayes continued by reminding the jury that fingerprints were found on a window screen that was removed from one of the homes that was burglarized. He reassured the jury that the fingerprints did match with those of the defendant, based on the expert opinion of the investigator who ran the fingerprints.
Finally, DDA Hayes explained to the jury that the witness testimony given by Powell was very different from the statements that he made during interrogation, suggesting that the defendant had lied to police. He also explained that the story presented by Powell cannot be corroborated . He argued that there was no evidence to prove Powell’s statements.
Deputy Hayes finished by stating that all the evidence proves beyond a reasonable doubt that Powell committed the crimes. He reminded the jury of the oath they took when selected that they would uphold the law.
“He spun different stories but has to admit he was in the house,” said Hayes about one house, where nothing was taken because he was caught inside.
“Oh, yeah, he said he met a girl on a sex app, and she wanted him to act like a robber, doesn’t make sense. She wanted to pay him $400 for sex? Then he says he was on drugs? Doesn’t make sense,” said the DDA.
But the defense had a different story.
Private defense attorney Dave Garland explained to the jury that jury instructions state someone may not be convicted of burglary just because they are possession of stolen property. He said that there must be evidence that proves that the defendant stole that property himself.
“They have him (defendant) dead in water. He’s guilty, but they (prosecution) elected to find him guilty of something else,” said Garland, adding that his client has admitted to using stolen property, but not burglary.
Garland went on by stating that his client has admitted that he did come into possession of recently stolen property. He said to the jury that just because his client had the stolen property does not mean he stole the property and the evidence presented by the prosecution is circumstantial at best.
Garland also noted that Powell has a history of abusing drugs and that when he gave initial statements to the police, he was under the influence of methamphetamine, which explains why there is a difference in those statements and the testimony he gave in court.
Next, Garland argued that the fingerprint evidence presented by the prosecution is questionable. He said that the expert who assures the fingerprints at one of the homes matches that of Powell’s is suspicious, given that Powell’s fingerprints were taken multiple times, including a year after the crime was supposedly committed.
Garland suggested this may be because there must be an error in the way that the fingerprints were handled. He reminded the jury that expert opinions are not fact and they have the discretion to decide whether they believe what the expert testified to is true and relevant to the case.
Finally, Garland continued by stipulating that Powell did enter the home in Count 3, but that he was there for other reasons, not to burglarize. He argued that his client was there to meet someone from an app and may have gotten confused. He explained that Powell was going through many personal challenges, including recently breaking up with his partner.
That victim, he said, “never described forced entry…or burglary tools. If he were there to assault or steal he would have done that. Again, he didn’t have burglary tools, tools of trade, picks, crowbar, mask, etc.”
Garland also noted that one victim said “her stolen cards were being used a month after Powell was arrested in March of 2017. Someone else has access to the cards.”
Garland wrapped up his arguments by reminding the jury that if there is any doubt whatsoever that his client committed the crime, then they must acquit. He appealed to the jury by stating, “You may not like what he did or the way he conducts himself but that is not what he is being charged with. You must consider the evidence and decide.”
Garland also asked the jury to consider the counts separately and decide for each count whether the defendant is guilty.
The jury will hear final instructions Friday morning and then begin deliberations.
To sign up for our new newsletter – Everyday Injustice – https://tinyurl.com/yyultcf9