By Roxanna Jarvis
WOODLAND, CA – A motion to allow remote witness testimony was denied in a Yolo County Superior Courtroom Tuesday regarding the ongoing case of Buck Thomas, an ex-baseball and softball coach charged with sexually assaulting two minors back in 2019.
The hearing in Yolo County Superior Court Department 12 was originally a trial readiness conference (TRC), but became a motion hearing when Deputy Public Defender Emily Fisher requested to instead cover motions, and schedule the TRC for another day.
Deputy District Attorney Rachel Raymond had filed a motion to the Court requesting that witnesses for the Buck Thomas jury trial be allowed to testify remotely. Fisher was present for the hearing but it was a second public defender, Erin Dacayanan, who argued against DDA Raymond’s motion.
Thomas operated his own coaching business and ran private instruction sessions, where it is alleged that Thomas inappropriately touched his victims.
An investigation into Thomas began in Sacramento after multiple victims reported allegations there. The West Sacramento Police Department then cooperated with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) and arrested Thomas in Arizona on January 4, 2019. It is also alleged that Thomas sexually assaulted one girl in Arizona who traveled there to train from Sacramento.
According to a press release from the Woodland DA, Thomas was arraigned March 1, 2019, for multiple counts of sexual assault on two underage female victims in the summer of 2018. Both of the victims are from California, one from Loomis, and the other from West Sacramento.
The charges Thomas is currently facing are burglary, lewd acts on a child, forcible sexual penetration upon a minor 14 years of age or older, forcible oral copulation with a minor, and sexual battery. He is facing a life sentence.
For Thomas’ most recent hearing, all but the judge (Paul K. Richardson) and Deputy Public Defenders Fisher and Dacayanan were present remotely via Zoom. Thomas (in custody) was logged in from a separate room accompanied by a bailiff.
Raymond said one of the witnesses, TM, did not want to be present because she was pregnant and does not want to travel during the pandemic. However, Raymond had difficulties contacting the second opposing witness, who wanted to do remote because her son currently is battling cancer.
Fisher and Dacayanan’s opposition to the motion was then addressed by Raymond. “One of the things [the] defense mentioned was ‘how do we know what the witnesses are going to be looking at when they’re testifying via Zoom?'” said Raymond. “My response to that would be that the People will arrange the testimony be done at either a prosecutor’s office or a police department.”
Raymond closed her argument by noting both she and the defense counsel cited the Supreme Court case Maryland v. Craig for their reasoning. “In Maryland v. Craig the importance of the state interest was in…avoiding any kind of trauma to a child victim and in this case, the importance of the interest is protecting the health of the witnesses like TM.”
In Maryland v. Craig (1990), it was ruled that the Sixth Amendment constitutional right of criminal defendants to have face-to-face meetings with witnesses against them at trial was not absolute. The case was encompassed by the notion that emotional distress would be inflicted upon the six-year-old victim in the case if she were to testify in court with the defendant present.
In DPD Dacayanan’s counter argument, she pointed out the irony of Raymond’s reasoning. “I strongly disagree with Mrs. Raymond’s characterization that Zoom testimony is reliable,” said Dacayanan. “Mrs. Raymond herself just got distracted a few minutes ago when the Court was speaking and she’s appearing over Zoom.”
Dacayanan also addressed how appearing over Zoom changes the “whole atmosphere of proceedings” and can work against Thomas and the defense counsel. Dacayanan explained how face-to-face confrontation shows the nuances in witnesses’ voices and their body language. “You don’t get to see all of that on Zoom. You see a more fuzzy appearance of someone,” she said.
“Are they shaking their foot while they’re talking? Do they appear nervous? You don’t get to see the look on the person’s face when they come in the door and look at Mr. Thomas for the first time right before they’re sworn in and walk up to the witness box. The jury doesn’t get to see any of that,” she added.
Dacayanan maintained the Court’s ruling is more important in this setting since Thomas is facing a life sentence, noting, “If they (witnesses) testify over Zoom, their veracity is lower and it’s harder to determine and it’s going to be harder for us when we’re looking at the witness over Zoom…to assess.”
The witnesses Raymond is fighting for to testify remotely are not the main victims in this case, but Evidence Code § 1108 victims. EVID § 1108 victims are witnesses allowed to give statements (and therefore present evidence) of a defendant’s prior acts to possibly show an inclination or pattern. EVID § 1108 is only allowed for certain charges (including sexual offenses like in Thomas’ case).
When Judge Richardson addressed both parties regarding the motion, he made sure to note the realities of the witnesses’ concerns before stating his verdict.
“Some of these witnesses have very legit reasons for not being here. TM, I believe, is the one pregnant and concerned,” said Richardson. “I would share that concern and I think everyone in the courtroom would as well. But, getting back to the language particular in Craig, they kept talking about the importance [of] defense counsel and the defendant to have the opportunity to measure the demeanor of the witnesses who testify.”
Judge Richardson then denied Raymond’s motion to allow remote witness testimony, stating it would be unfair for Thomas, the defense counsel, and the jury if remote testimony occurred. “I think under the circumstances of this case in fairness to Mr. Thomas and the defense counsel, and in fairness to the jury whose requirement is to measure demeanor and watch the witnesses testify, that that should be done in open court here in Department 12,” declared Judge Richardson.
A second motion was then requested to substitute witnesses, which the Court granted due to the similarity of both witnesses’ allegations.
A TRC for Thomas is set to occur on Sept. 2, 2020, at 9 a.m. in Dept. 12. Thomas is currently in custody, with a bail amount set at $1,000,000.
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