By Lauren Smith
While the number of COVID-19 cases remained level in California in September and October, the number of cases skyrocketed near the end of October nationwide, meaning the continuing pandemic mandated that the courts remain closed to the public, but available to view or listen to online.
And that’s what the virtual army of Vanguard interns did.
For instance, in September, five Vanguard interns worked together to cover the trial of Yolo youth softball coach Jack “Buck” Maldonado Thomas, charged with sexually assaulting the teen female softball players who received private lessons from him.
Multiple victims, now in their twenties, testified during his trial. One recalled that the defendant “touched her intimately, and for five minutes. She kept asking him what he was doing, and he would repeat that it was to see if she was D-1 material.”
One mother recounted how her family came in contact with the defendant, how they hired the defendant to be their daughter’s softball coach, and eventually came to find out what he did to their 16-year-old daughter.
When Thomas took the stand in his own defense, he stated he had an “unorthodox” way of training. He attributed the Instagram messages in which he called the young girls “baby girl” to an attempt to build rapport.”
Thomas was eventually convicted of two counts of sexual assault.
In October, intern Tiffany Devlin saw Deputy Public Defender Richard Van Zandt argue that the rule stating that police are not required to give testimony in person, they can do so via zoom, is “hypocritical” and “fundamentally inconsistent.”
Van Zandt stated that since the pandemic, he has seen motions from the District Attorney asking for continuances when officers are unavailable to testify for various reasons including in person trainings and vacations.
He stated that it is “fundamentally inconsistent” to allow an officer to attend an in-person training, but “say it’s too dangerous for the officer to come to court and testify because of the Coronavirus.”
Judge David Reed refused to change the prior ruling stating that he does not consider is “hypocritical or dispositive” and that “the court’s ruling adequately protects the defendant’s right to confront witnesses.”
Also in October, intern Hannah Skepner covered six victim impact statements made at one of defendant Nazim Shikhanstov’s hearings. The defendant faced a felony manslaughter charge. He allegedly hit the victim with his tractor trailer while the victim was driving to work on a motorcycle.
Rather than call 911, the defendant called his coworker, begging him to lie about being the one who hit the motorcyclist.
After hearing statements made by the victim’s father, best friend, uncle, close family friend, golf coach and the victim’s grandmother, Shikhanstov stated, “I personally live with this every day; you can go cuckoo thinking about it … mentally it destroys you, and I truly want to apologize.”
The defendant was sentenced to 364 days in custody, two years of probation and 80 hours of a driver’s safety course.
Lauren Smith is a fourth year student at UC Davis, double majoring in Political Science and Psychology. She is from San Diego, California.
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