Three years ago in Davis, Lauren Kirk-Coehlo in the early days of the Trump administration committed an act of vandalism on the Davis Islamic Center, when she broke windows, slashed tires and most, notably, put bacon on the door.
When an investigation found evidence that she was discussing mass killings, they put a $1 million bail on her case.
But there were no weapons and no evidence that she had reasonably tried to acquire weapons.
In June 2017, Judge Dan Maguire, over the strenuous objections of Yolo County Deputy DA Ryan Couzens, sentenced the woman, who was 30 at the time, to five years of formal probation following the recommendations of the probation department.
Ms. Kirk-Coehlo plead to the sheet and admitted to, among other things, a charge of felony vandalism and vandalism on a religious facility with hate crime enhancements. The maximum sentence was six years, but it was a probation eligible crime.
At the outset Judge Maguire indicated that Ms. Kirk-Coehlo would be eligible for release at some point—this was not a life sentence and the question for him was whether the community was safer in the long run with her in prison or with her on probation but getting more intense treatment for various mental health challenges that she faced.
At the time, Davis Mayor Robb Davis had strongly encouraged a restorative justice process.
Now, three years later, a Yolo County judge agreed to expunge her record. The Islamic Center took a neutral position this week, but Couzens questioned the ramifications for expungement, although he agreed to a shortened probation period.
Judge Rosenberg called the crime “a one-time act that will not be repeated.”
“The person who is sitting before the court today is quite different from the person who sat before the court three years ago. The changes are remarkable and commendable,” the judge said.
He added, “I’m quite confident that the different person sitting before the court today will move in a completely different direction.”
Former Mayor Robb Davis noted on Facebook, “Right or wrong (right I believe), I wrote to the judge (not Rosenberg) and both defense and prosecutors asking for a process by which this young person could meet with members of the mosque to talk about the harms and discuss how they could be made right. That never happened and, in my opinion, was a significant missed opportunity for restoration to occur.”
Others however called it “white privilege” and argued as they did when the sentence was handed down that this solution was not available for a person of color.
The context of this incident is important.
First, it came at a time when the Muslim Community had felt under fire with Trump pushing for a Muslim ban.
Second, there were clear signs that the defendant was getting involved with white supremacy.
On the other hand, $1 million bail seemed absurd. That was particularly the case when the judge gave her probation.
Was probation warranted? I think so. As pointed out, she may have been writing disturbing things, but she did not have access to weapons or attempt to acquire them.
Would a person of color have faced a similar lenient sentence? It’s hard to know.
Deputy DA Couzens pointed out, “There is no bonafide mental health condition that can be addressed.
“She is 30 years old and a college graduate,” he argued, “she should understand that what she did was wrong.”
Meanwhile Robb Davis, the former mayor, still laments lost opportunities. It was in 2017 that he wrote Judge Dan Maguire and told the judge, “The leaders of the Islamic Center of Davis have repeatedly told me, and any who will hear, of their desire to face the offender to help her understand that they are human. They would like her to know of their desire to help her find a way forward.”
That was never followed through in this case. The result is that, while the Islamic Center took a neutral position on the issue of expungement, they are left with questions about what happened and why. The incident—especially coming when it did—really alarmed them.
A restorative justice process “enables victims to explain the harms caused by the act and to seek, with the offender, a way forward that enables the harms to be made right, as much as possible, and assure they will not be repeated.”
The system has lost an opportunity to not just move past this issue, but to learn from it. That’s too bad.
But I think what some are missing is this: the case was handled properly by the judge. While the comments and communication by the woman, in this case, were no doubt alarming, she had no criminal history, she made a bad mistake, she got mixed up with people she shouldn’t have been, but instead of destroying her life, they gave her a chance.
Would she have gotten this opportunity if she were a person of color? It’s quite possible that she would not. We know from the studies and comparative data analysis that people of color are more likely to face charges and more likely to serve time than whites.
But the remedy for that is not to be harsher in our penalties for whites—it is to give people of color the same opportunity.
The problem here isn’t the handling of this case, the problem is that other cases of this sort are mishandled. I agree with the former mayor, this would have been a perfect opportunity for a restorative process which would have allowed the victims—the Muslim community—to have their wrongs addressed.
This is a point that Natalie Wormeli of the Yolo County ACLU made to me. She said that “expungement is necessary because the community, throughout the country, doesn’t yet believe in rehabilitation therefore if somebody has a conviction it’s nearly impossible for them to get a job.”
Mistakes should not destroy people’s lives. Our system is often too punitive because we allow relatively minor mistakes to have huge impact—felony status and drug convictions lead to the loss of rights and opportunities.
That is ultimately self-defeating. We have allowed Lauren Kirk-Coehlo to have a second chance—but so many others deserve the same opportunities.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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