By Jaden Jarmel-Schneider
SACRAMENTO – A bailiff’s cinematography on Zoom and a law enforcement officer’s technical confusion challenged the integrity of a defendant identification in a preliminary hearing on Monday morning.
During a proceeding to determine if there was enough evidence to send Sumpter Porter, an inmate at Folsom State Prison, to trial for allegedly battering a correctional office with a liquid, the testifying officer was initially unable to identify Porter when the image of Department 21 in the Sacramento County Superior Court didn’t appear on his screen.
“Do you see the person who threw the unknown liquid in court, sir?” Deputy District Attorney Patrick Foster asked Correctional Officer Dragon Tran, both of whom were appearing remotely in the livestreamed hearing.
After pausing for several moments, Tran answered, “I’m still waiting, I do not see.”
“Are you in gallery mode?” Judge Shelleyanne Chang interjected. He answered no.
When the video settings were fixed, Judge Chang instructed the bailiff to bring the camera closer to counsel table and asked the three people sitting there to briefly remove their masks.
The bailiff lifted the camera and walked over until it was pointed directly at Porter, with the two officers out of shot. Seeming to recognize that this had the potential of biasing Tran’s identification of the defendant, Judge Chang told the bailiff to pan the camera so that the entire table was visible.
The previously uncertain Tran, now facing the two attorneys, both wearing suits, and Porter, wearing a bright orange prison uniform, told the court that he could definitively identify Porter as the inmate who had assaulted him.
Tran testified that on August 6, 2019, Porter had “gassed” him, a term used by correctional officers to describe an incident in which an inmate batters an officer with a liquid.
On cross-examination, Assistant Public Defender Juan Contreras questioned Tran about the investigation that followed the gassing incident. He elicited from Tran that the proper California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) protocol—which requires officers to search and collect evidence from the holding cell from which the inmate battered the officer—was not followed.
Contreras also pointed out that an inmate whom Tran was escorting at the time of the battery, who would have been an important eyewitness for both Tran and Porter, was never asked about the incident and never mentioned by name in the report that was filed.
The court also heard testimony from Officer David Katz, who swabbed Tran’s face for forensic testing, and Officer Alesandro Padilla, who served as a liaison to the Forensic Services Laboratory.
Katz explained that swabs had been taken from Tran’s face and sunglasses, but reaffirmed that by not searching or taking photographs of the cell that held Porter, CDCR protocol had been violated.
When Padilla took the stand, as the final witness for the People, he served as conduit for the forensic findings of Stephanie James, the criminalist for the Sacramento District Attorney’s Office who conducted the testing of the swabs Katz collected.
He testified that, of the two swabs tested, one tested positive for urea, the chemical compound found in human urine. On cross-examination, he admitted that he didn’t ask James if urea was found in any other fluids or what it meant that only one of the swabs had tested positive.
With this evidence on the record, Judge Chang determined that there was sufficient cause to believe that Porter was guilty of the crime and scheduled the trial to begin on September 10.
Immediately after this, a second preliminary hearing was held regarding an unrelated incident involving Porter.
The district attorney’s office, represented again by Foster, charged Porter with one count of making criminal threats, a violation of the California Penal Code in which a defendant willfully threatens to unlawfully kill or unlawfully cause great bodily injury to another person.
Foster called only one witness during the hearing: Anthony Gamble, the responding officer.
Gamble testified that Porter threatened his food-stamps provider, threw a chair at her door, and eventually approached her office building with an axe.
Although there was some confusion during Gamble’s testimony over the exact date of the incidents, Judge Chang found that there was again enough evidence for a trial.
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