By Macy Lu
Though turbulent and full of jarring surprises, 2020 ended on a note of hope for more than a few defendants as judges from both Sacramento and Yolo County reduced jail time and offered alternative solutions besides jail and prison in acts of clemency.
Interspersed among these heartwarming moments, however, were sobering reminders of the pandemic reality. With Covid-19 cases rocketing across California throughout November and December – multiplying 10-fold since mid-summer – virus-related issues remained disruptive in the courts.
Notable examples included cases in which a defendant’s right to a speedy trial were nearly compromised by emergency court orders, technical difficulties hampered court proceedings, and a court decides to treat rather than incarcerate a meth defendant.
In the first week of November, intern Özge Terzioğlu reported on a case at the Sacramento County Superior Court in which the public defender and deputy district attorney cooperated to ensure the defendant, Yevgeniy Onopko, would be able to attend his brother’s birthday.
Onopko’s brother’s birthday would be on the Nov. 7, but he would get out five days later on the 12th. Rather than have him serve the full 60 days sentence, Assistant Public Defender Michael Mullan asked Deputy District Attorney Frederick Gotha if Onopko could serve 45 days instead.
Though reluctant since Onopko has been on probation since May 2019, the DDA agreed, but not without remarking, “if he comes back again, it’s going to be hard to be lenient with him as we are now. So, make a mental note that it’s not going to be as easy next time, if there is a next time.”
He was first caught on July 23 with 15 grams of meth and then on Sept. 2 with 47 grams. The first time he had scales used for drug sales and the second time, he was with a potential buyer.
Intern Julian Navarro writes, “Deputy District Attorney Spencer Rajabzadeh said that once officers interrogated Chavez they were advised by the defendant that he…sells meth in order to feed his meth addiction.”
In response to Rajabzadeh, Assistant Public Defender Guy Danilowitz claimed that “Chavez’ drug addiction has led to these crimes being committed in the first place.” Therefore, Danilowitz argued, bail should be avoided in favor of giving him the treatment he needs to fight addiction.
Seeing the reasonableness of the request, Judge Patrick Marlette “applauded Danilowitz for doing the best for his client.” He then ordered Chavez to be released on Level 5 supervision and for him to attend counseling at “Another Choice, Another Chance” twice a week.
Also in November, technical difficulties with the video conferencing platform Zoom hindered key witnesses from testifying at a domestic abuse preliminary hearing at the Yolo County Superior Court.
The hearing revolved around an argument between the victim and her partner’s brother, defendant James Caldwell, in which he allegedly struck her in the face with a bottle detergent after he became frustrated over the location of rice in the house and after he learned that she was not going to pay rent.
Technical complications ensued when the victim could not figure out how to use Zoom. Vanguard intern Bianca Estrada observed the victim stating, “that she was calling from her phone in Michigan, and was by herself, nowhere near a computer.” Her audio functioned but her video was nowhere to be seen.
Sometime into the hearing, DDA Michelle Serafin instructed the victim to log off and log back on with the new zoom link she had sent her. After the victim left, she never returned.
Officer Victor Barajas delivered his testimony next but due to audio glitches he was interrupted and asked to “speak up, and speak clearly” several times throughout his testimony.
Judge Reed eventually decided that “more evidence was needed,” so he reduced the charge to a misdemeanor.
COVID-19-induced complications continued into the month of December for courthouses, beginning with a case in which defense attorney Kelly Babineau accused the Deputy District Attorney Dina Meilke of “abusing” emergency court orders in an attempt to violate the defendant’s right to a speedy trial.
Interns Linhchi Nguyen and Nickolas Kwok reported that Babineau accused Meilke of filing for a 1382 extension to push the trial back an extra 60 days “without good cause.”
Babineau argued that the extension was designed, according to the law, “to accommodate the courts when ‘they can’t provide courtrooms or because there are issues that make it unsafe to have a trial’” not for the DA to “use without establishing good cause.”
The DDA justified her request for extension by highlighting that her witnesses were unable to appear as they were undergoing a 14-days mandatory quarantine.
She further substantiated her request by reminding Judge Patrick Marlette that “at no point in those emergency orders is there an amendment that dictates that additional good cause needs to be stated.”
Judge Marlette ended up overruling Babineau’s objection and granting the extension. The trial was then set for January.
Other Coronavirus-induced issues include “dangerous inactions” and “false statements” about “a major COVID-19 outbreak at the facility” (Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center) on the part of ICE and the private GEO Group Inc.
On Dec. 4, Vanguard Editor David Greenwald reported that both were severely castigated by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California for their irresponsibility.
“‘ICE and GEO officials in charge of operations at Mesa Verde… knew that they needed a clear and detailed plan to minimize the risk of an outbreak (and to contain an outbreak if one occurred), but nine months later they still have not created one,’” said federal Judge Vince Chhabria.
ICE officials’ failure to test detainees, denial of bail on a blanket basis to low flight risk individuals, deliverance of false testimonies in court, and attempts to obstruct court proceedings by refusing to answer questions during depositions, were just some of the misdeeds noted.
Rather than loosen COVID-19 restrictions on Mesa Verde as ICE requested, the court “added new restrictions requested by the detainees’ representatives, including that two dorms be reserved for people who test positive, protective intake procedures, and that the detainee population for each dorm be capped at 26.”
In January, 2021, The Vanguard Court Watch program will expand into UC Berkeley and UCLA campuses, with help from UCLA and USC students.
Macy is a junior from Orange County, CA studying Communications and English at UC Davis. She loves meeting people, reading books, and writing creatively.
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