By Roxanna Jarvis
FRESNO – It’s rare to have a defendant represent themselves—it’s called “pro se” and “pro per”—in court, but that’s what happened with the case of Yonatan Erena here in Fresno County Superior Court late last week.
After a long two years in and out of court, Erena was granted a motion to represent himself. During the hearing, Erena called for his case to be dismissed and expressed his “frustrations” with the system—a system which he believes has no regard for his life outside of the courtroom.
Erena is currently charged with contempt of court following a violation of a criminal protective order (CPO) issued in 2017. In the 2017 case, Erena was convicted of pimping and given four years probation, 34 days of jail or work program, and a CPO between him and the victim in the case.
Sometime after that (it was not stated when), Erena and the victim were pulled over by an officer in Fresno. After the officer ran Erena’s information, he noticed the active CPO and arrested him. After going through multiple attorneys, Erena decided to represent himself instead.
“You’re still absolutely sure you would like to represent yourself?” asked Judge Ana de Alba of Erena.
“I would like to make clear that I am not denying the help of public defenders. I am being denied the help I need. That’s why I took the only choice,” responded Erena.
After being granted self-representation, Erena’s former attorney, Attorney Mohamad Baydoun, was relieved from his position and left the courtroom.
As Judge de Alba read Erena his choices for moving forward, he interrupted the judge, noting, “Your Honor, sorry to interrupt you. But, earlier in court I was sitting down—I came every day to see—and I noticed that you give a lot of people more focus on their life outside this courtroom, but when it comes to me, nobody really gives more attention [to] what I have outside the courtroom.”
Erena is currently unemployed. At his last hearing, Erena informed the judge that he lost his job due to the number of times he has had to miss work and come to court.
“I am unemployed, but the bills have not stopped coming.”
Erena then pulled out a packet containing his resume, cover letter, and a letter of recommendation from his most recent employer. He attempted to give it to the clerk to hand to Judge de Alba, but de Alba stopped him, asking, “I am not allowed to look at things that are not presented as evidence to me….Why are you telling me this?”
Erena then shifted his focus in the direction of Deputy District Attorney BreAnne Ruelas. “Ms. Ruelas right here is representing the People….Here I have [papers] showing that the people—from Fresno to Clovis, the Boys and Girls Club to employers—have accepted me and loved me and cherished me.”
When told by Judge de Alba that all he has to do today is set a date to come back, Erena refused, telling the Court he has been coming back and forth for too long.
“I have been coming here for two years! For two years, Your Honor…my life has been on pause. I cannot keep a job because I don’t know when I’m going to be arrested or when my next court date is going to be,” he continued.
“I just want my case to be dismissed, your honor. I’m not a bad person, I have three to four packages in my backpack that can prove that I am a great citizen. I am not a threat.”
In response to Erena’s appeal, DDA Ruelas asserted that he was given multiple offers from many DDAs, including herself, all of which he refused. “My last offer was a one-year post plea, obey all laws with some community service. The ones in the past have been similar to that.”
Erena responded to Ruelas’ claim, “Your Honor, I don’t have much knowledge to protect myself, but I have paid my dues for my past mistakes.”
“When they discussed the one-year post plea with you, did you reject that offer?” asked Judge de Alba.
“That was a really great deal, I’m not going to lie,” answered Erena. “But this is the thing—my life in the current situation is like [dominoes] standing next to each other. When one of them falls, everything falls apart. I would take that deal, but I can’t take that risk. If I take [that] risk, a lot of things go wrong for me.”
Judge de Alba ultimately decided to not dismiss Erena’s case. “What I need you to let me know, sir, is if you want to maintain your jury trial timeout date.”
“No, I would like to continue right now, forward going until five o’clock if possible,” interrupted Erena.
Judge de Alba quickly responded, “That is not possible, I’m telling you right now. I’m not going to resolve your case, that is not the way that the Court works.”
“I am not resolving my case, I am ready for trial—the room is open. We can go to trial as of right now,” asserted Erena. “I’d like to state on record that the Court is aware I am unemployed and I am about to be homeless, and they are still postponing my time.”
“No one is postponing your time,” said Judge de Alba. “I feel your frustration and I can sense it from the TV…you have a life outside of this and I understand that, but I have an obligation to you and to the system to make sure that your rights are being respected.”
After some time debating on whether to go continue with a jury trial at the next date or start over with a pre-trial hearing, Erena decided to start his case over.
After Erena received DDA Ruelas’ contact information, Judge de Alba was able to set a date for the upcoming pre-trial hearing.
“Your Honor, I will be back on Wednesday. Thank you very much,” the defendant said.
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