Vanguard Week in Review: Court Watch – Jan. 25 to 29, 2021

Compiled by Kelly Moran

 The Davis Vanguard is an online news forum that provides coverage of criminal justice reform and courts throughout California and the nation.

 In 2006, the Davis Vanguard began to cover Davis and Yolo County groundbreaking, local news concerning government and policy issues affecting the city, schools, and county. In the past few years, the online news source has been able to expand to Sacramento and the surrounding regions. 

 Today, the team has grown to about 40 to 50 interns who monitor and report on live court proceedings in more than six different counties throughout California, from the State Capitol of Sacramento to the Greater San Francisco Bay Area, the Central Valley and Southern California. 

 This week Vanguard interns and news reporters covered stories from Sacramento, Yolo, Contra Costa, Fresno, Merced and Alameda courthouses. These are just some of the stories covered.

Monday Jan. 25, 2021

Sacramento County Superior Court

Dept. 3 – Kelly Moran: Two defendants received their sentencing from Judge Sawtelle in Dept. 3 of Sacramento Superior Court after they were charged with larceny from allegedly robbing a Rite Aid last March. DDA Toni Linarez read aloud a statement by the Rite Aid store leader who had witnessed the theft. “It is my position and request that the court sentence these defendants to at least a year in jail in order to write a letter about what they learned and apologize to the store,” wrote the store leader. “The brazenness and the complete disregard for property and human safety shows they need additional time to appreciate and understand the nature of their actions and the consequences that go with it.” Codefendants Shyvonne Hooker and Mark Ray were each given one year in county jail, and will be under two years of formal probation. They will also have to pay the minimum amount for a felony charge of $300 in restitution.

Dept. 4 – Lauren Smith: Defendant Vincent Stevens was charged with possession of drugs and possession of a firearm. He allegedly was driving under the influence when he crashed into two parked cars. When his vehicle was searched they found Xanax, cocaine and an empty firearm holster. Stevens suffered a head injury and was transferred to the hospital before the officers searched the vehicle. They were worried that he had a handgun on him in the hospital so they drove there, searched him, and found a .357 handgun in his waistband.

Dept. 9 – Nancy Aviña:  In Contra Costa Superior Court Dept. 9, Judge John Devine oversaw and conducted a case to settle a probation violation. Defendant Felisha Hanson was originally charged with a resolved felony in 2018. Felisha Hanson was arrested last Thursday, after she called the police on an unrelated matter and the police saw that she had an outstanding warrant. The warrant was for her arrest due to a failure to appear at a hearing on the case from May of 2018 that Hanson thought was resolved. Her attorney stated that she had a change in address so she did not get a notice of the court hearing. Hanson ended up serving 27 days based on a felony violation in 2018 so she resolved the matter for time served. She has currently been in jail for five days so Attorney Solange Hilfinger-Pardo asked that the DA’s office dismiss the probation violation that she is in on because she felt as though it should not have been set in the first place. In the end, Ashley Torres for the People and Judge John Devine dismissed the probation violation.

Dept. 60 – Samara Yarnes: Sacramento Superior Court Dept. 60 quickly went through 11 cases. The majority of these cases had requested date confirmations or rescheduled dates. One case led to the raising of a defendant’s bail, as it had previously been set too low. Another case allowed for a defendant’s upcoming misdemeanor trial to instead used for their more recent murder charge. The most notable case led with the defendant requesting to be released on his own recognizance in order to attend a funeral for his father. However, Judge Tedmon denied the request, stating that the defendant was a threat to the victim and community. He used the defendant’s probable cause statement, which stated that he called the victim, told her he had a gun and was going to “f*** her s**t up.”

Fresno County Superior Court

Dept. 10 – Roxanna Jarvis: Judge Francine Zepeda made the order to keep defendant Jeremy Clayton in custody after he relayed that he had nowhere to go if released. Initially, he told the court he could live with his sister, but backtracked saying, “She’s not gonna let me stay….” Judge Zepeda asked if he wanted to be kept in custody for a few days to decide where to stay, but told her, “I’d rather be homeless.” Ultimately, Judge Zepeda denied his release and set his bail at $20,000.


Dept. 12 – William McCurry: Fresno Superior Court Dept. 12 had a huge amount of motions to continue their cases. Many different preliminary hearings and changes of pleas got moved to further dates. Something that took me by surprise today was how many people missed their hearings. About half their docket today failed to appear for their hearing and bench warrants were issued for everyone who failed to appear.

Contra Costa County Superior Court

Dept. 31 – Alexander Ramirez:  In Contra Costa Dept. 31, under Judge Laurel Brady, there were no sentences carried out. During this time, there were a total of nine cases that included either drug abuse or vandalism and were to be followed up on. Eight of the cases that featured drug abuse consisted of updates on the client on how their rehabilitation is going, and follow up dates were decided. The one vandalism case consisted of an order to attend the next court date, seeing as there has been no contact between the client and the lawyer since then.

Dept. 37 – Alexander Ramirez: Judge Wade Rhyne had four different plea agreements for four DUI cases and rescheduled 14 other cases. The DUI cases were all settled with no contest and only one change of plea. For the DUI cases, probation, fines, and rehabilitation were all a common theme. No other follow up dates were discussed.

Tuesday January 26, 2021

Sacramento County Superior Court

Dept. 4 – Danae Snell & Derrick Pal: The first preliminary hearing involved drug charges and health and safety code violations. The second preliminary hearing addressed the case of Herbert Highsmith. Defendant Highsmith appeared before Judge Steve White after confessing to crimes he committed back in 2008. After nearly dying from a stroke, Defendant Highsmith became overwhelmed with guilt and remorse, and chose to face his past by admitting to his crimes of molestation. In 2008, Defendant Highsmith was placed under investigation for molesting his daughter (the victim) after she informed some friends of an incident involving inappropriate touching by the defendant.

However, the case failed to hold the defendant accountable due to the lack of evidence and the victim’s inability to disclose the truth during a SAFE interview because of the overwhelming fear she experienced. Nearly 12 years later, Defendant Highsmith broke his silence and apologized to his daughter for the trauma he had caused in her life. On Sept. 20, 2020, Detective Patrick Thibeault from the Folsom Police Dept. received a phone call stating that there was “someone at the office who wanted to turn themselves in or admit to something that had happened many years ago.”

Dept. 60 – Linhchi Nguyen: Judge Tedmon oversaw various arraignments and most of the cases he heard revolved around domestic assault, including one with defendant Kenneth Blackburn, who was charged for corporal injury on spouse or cohabitant and for failure to satisfy his batterer’s treatment program. Because he committed his misdemeanor violation while he was on probation, the district attorney has converted his work project hours into in-custody time. Blackburn attempted to speak out of protest, but Judge Tedmon quickly quieted him, saying that his “disrespect” against the court only prompts him to further deny the defendant’s request for work order.

Blackburn’s arraignment was similar to defendant Guadalupe Hernandez’s situation. Hernandez, who was charged for assaulting a prostitute, had his bail increased to $200,000. Hernandez protested against his charge, but once again, Judge Tedmon claimed that his disrespect to the court only affirms his decision.

Fortunately, not all defendants faced a negative sentencing. David Olegario was able to get his bail reduced from $50,000 to $17,500 due to good behavior. As for another defendant, Jeffery Byars, the judge acknowledged that he had made significant efforts to rehabilitate himself, and, therefore, Byars was given extra time to pay off the rest of his overdue restitution fees.

Merced County Superior Court

Dept. 1 – Aishwarya Rajan: In a rural town inside of Merced, CA, father and aggressor to victim and wife of four children, defendant Guadaloupe Lopez-Herrera’s faces 34 charges. Beginning in July of 2019, the defendant consistently left threatening voicemails to his wife, the victim of several of his attacks. One of these attacks was at a Chevron, where he hit her in her car, with his truck. The second physical altercation involved attempted harm to his 11-year-old daughter, alleged harm to his 16-year-old son, and true harm to his wife by bashing her skull. Distraught by her experiences, and fearing for her family, the victim’s testimony along with additional witnesses will be voiced at a second preliminary hearing later this week.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Sacramento County Superior Court

Dept. 3 – Danae Snell: Sacramento Superior Court Dept. 3 had two preliminary hearings on the schedule; however, they quickly turned into plea deals. One of the cases involved a defendant pleading to the sheet, which means he pleaded to every single charge he was facing from all three of his charging complaints. During the year of 2020, Defendant Seteroff stalked, harassed and threatened the same victim on numerous encounters, which led to three separate charging complaints. According to Deputy District Attorney Stephanie Maroun, “the defendant willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly followed and harassed the victim, and made incredible threat with the intent that she would be placed in reasonable fear for her safety and the safety of her family.” Specifically, “the defendant repeatedly went to her house and left multiple notes indicating that she needed to drop the restraining order or else her life would be in serious harm and other people will beat her up.” A restraining order was issued March 6, 2020. By pleading to the sheet, the defendant has exposed himself to the possibility of facing up to five years and eight months in incarceration for his charges.

Dept. 4 – Aishwarya Rajan: Defendant Eric Giannini, represented by Brennan McGee, produced a powerful argument generalizing the failures of the court system during the COVID-19 pandemic, to those being charged or convicted. McGee requested approval for a Motion to Dismiss Giannini’s case on the basis of the justice system’s failure to account for and provide adequate diligence in fulfilling his client’s 6th Amendment rights. He identified the failures as injustices by neglecting the 6th Amendment rights of all people. Judge Steve White, in agreement with the claims made by McGee, opined, “I do wish to say that I think the court has failed, procedurally, with regard to the record, and I am very dismayed by that, Mister.” Despite Judge Steve White’s perspective, he denied the motion brought forward by Brennan McGee and further compromise was set in motion between the defense and prosecution.

Dept. 62 – Carlin Kempt: Judge Michael Savage’s courtroom in Sacramento Dept. 62 was quite run of the mill. Melony Nulph and Justin Hart, represented by attorney Carmen Butler and PD Terissa Wong in a co-defense matter, entered not guilty pleas, however, their preliminary hearing was moved to March 3 due to a power outage at the defendants house the day of the hearing. Attorney Alan Donato appeared at Daviyone Brown’s bail review, but the bail agents were nowhere to be found.  Donato asked to keep bail set at $50,000 because his client is an insulin dependent diabetic. Due to the facts of the case, an armed robbery with allegations of Brown leaning his head out the window of the getaway car to fire rounds at a car trailing him and his co-defendant, Judge Savage said raising bail to at least $250,000 would not be unlikely.

Yolo County Superior Court

Dept. 8 – Alexander Ramirez & Jose Medina: In Yolo 8, we heard a hit-and-run case prelim with two officer witnesses under Judge P. Williams. The two witnesses explained the scene at the time of the hit and run, and the process of finding the suspect seen fleeing the scene of the crime by witnesses. The second officer then had about five minutes of cross-examination. The defendant was found guilty on three counts, and a follow-up date was determined.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Sacramento County Superior Court

Dept. 3 – Avalon Amaral: A preliminary was held for Dandre Crawford to assess if there’s sufficient evidence to charge him with the intent to sell. After missing probation hearings with Officer Alberto Cortes, two warrants were put out for the arrest of Crawford. Cortes found Crawford outside of Larkspur Hotel in Sacramento Ca. Once detained officers discovered large amounts of methamphetamine in Crawford’s hotel room along with scales and Ziploc bags. Cortes, who was deemed an expert by Judge Arguelles, is of the opinion that Crawford’s intention was to sell. The judge lowered bail, but determined there was sufficient evidence for a trial, which will take place at 1:30 on March 15.

Dept. 60 – Esha Kher & Aziza Nussipov: In Dept. 60, we observed trends of various pre-trial probation release orders where the conditions for release had to do with stay away orders and no contact orders. In Dept. 61, many hearings were rescheduled/scheduled. One detained defendant spoke out ardently about proceedings he felt were being mishandled in his case. In both Dept. 60 and 61, there was an instance in which a defendant spoke out but in each case, the judge shut them down and continued to reschedule their hearings.

Dept. 61 – Macy Lu: Judge Timothy Frawley oversaw over 30 cases, most of which were continuances, motions, or pleas. Notably, there were around six instances in which defendants were unable to appear themselves due to medical complications. Those defendants were either in the hospital or quarantining.

In one moving case, a defendant charged with the possession of methamphetamine and who had failed to complete a year of rehab twice. He claimed that he was disinclined to complete the second time because of the program director’s failure to mandate Covid-19 safeguards and that he has been unable to enroll in another program since. Despite his story, Judge Frawley ordered he serve 16 months of jail time. He was handcuffed and led away in tears, pleading with his attorney Christopher Ryan to call his wife for him.

Riverside County Superior Court

Dept. 2H – Alana Bleimann & Zahra Abbas:  Judge Anthony Villalobos set a trial after hearing a “very unusual case” of two deputy witness testimonies in the case of defendant Hernandez Moreno, who was found at the bottom of an embankment shaking and yelling out for the safety of his life. Two individuals heard his cries while standing outside their truck early in the morning, but fled the scene out of fear. Later, it was revealed through the testimony of deputy Robert Luna that the individuals were shot at while inside their truck, allegedly by the defendant who owned an AR 15.

The defendant’s defense team argued that he was acting in self-defense because the victims were following and “tormenting him” earlier that day. It was not established whether the bullet casings in the truck matched the guns owned by the defendant. The People argued that the defendant’s blood tested positive for methamphetamine and the alleged tormenting was just his “imagination,” a common side-effect of using such harsh drugs.

Yolo County Superior Court

Dept. 1 – Derrick Pal: In Yolo County Superior Court Dept. 1, multiple plea hearings on criminal misdemeanor cases took place in the morning. Many of the cases that were reviewed were scheduled for later hearings based on the Defendants’ participation and completion of programs such as alcohol education, substance abuse treatment, and community care.


Dept. 7 – Kelly Moran: After examining the plea agreement for Angel Lopez, a Woodland defendant held on felony charges of assault with a deadly weapon with gang enhancements, Judge David W. Reed ruled on the side of defense counsel Patricia Campi who asked for a 180-day sentence for her client with the opportunity to complete the time in an alternative program. Reed also ruled Lopez’s case to be an “unusual case”, meaning Lopez was eligible for probation despite the severity of the felony charge, due to his age and lack of prior criminal record. DDA David Wilson expressed concern on behalf of the victim and his family that Lopez was not taking his situation seriously, yet Judge Reed made it very clear to Lopez what the confines of his probation would be and the lasting effects of his felony charge. “With this conviction, you may never, ever legally own a gun or possess a gun ever,” said Judge Reed, “it’s a lifelong prohibition under federal law… there’s no second amendment right for people who have been convicted of felonies.”

Friday January 29, 2021

Sacramento County Superior Court

Dept. 3 – Jose Medina, Lisbeth Martinez, & Hongyi Wen: We witnessed a preliminary hearing where a defendant was charged with the sale of narcotics. The defense argued that the defendant was not given proper Miranda rights warnings while the prosecution believes that they were based on interviews with the defendant’s family, who were present at the incident as witnesses. The court found no Miranda rights violations due to the defendant and the defendant’s family fully revealing the defendant’s stash of narcotics.

A second preliminary trial of two brothers Jared and David Belmares in Sacramento County Court Dept. 3 that took up most of the entire day and will continue next week. The defendants are charged with committing lewd acts towards children that were being babysat by their mother. The court heard from three witnesses, two of which were detectives that investigated the child abuse incident and the third witness was Jared Belmares fiancé. The detectives recalled upsetting details of what they found of the investigation while the fiancé claimed that Jared Belmares was rarely at his mother’s house but could not be fully certain about whether or not Jared Belmares visited his mother while she babysat the victims.

Dept. 5 – Sophia Barberini & Mia Machado: Judge Lueras decided that there was enough evidence for defendant, Edward Ames, to stand trial. The defendant was charged with robbery in the second degree and assault with a deadly weapon after being accused of assaulting and stealing shoes from his sister. The district attorney called officer Nigel Pell as a witness, who asserted that when he arrived on the scene, he came into contact with Ames’s sister, the victim, who said that the defendant had struck her six times in the face with his fists and a rod, which was later identified as a trash pick.

The victim’s ex-boyfriend, according to Officer Pell, asserted that the defendant and his sister began fighting over a sweater before the defendant pushed his sister down and hit her with a plastic chair and a trash pick. Officer Pell also noted that he noticed no visible marks on the victim’s face. The defense attorney highlighted the discrepancies between the victim and her boyfriend’s story and that Officer Pell did not speak with any other potential witnesses. The DDA refuted the defense attorney’s argument and stated to the judge, “You know the case, you heard the evidence.” The judge found that there was sufficient evidence that the defendant was guilty, and that he shall be held to answer.

Yolo County Superior Court

Dept. 7 – Jose Medina & Max Kennedy Jr.: Yolo County Superior Court Dept. 7 dealt with a confusing preliminary hearing of a case in which a defendant, Robert Thompson, is alleged to have thrown a loaded revolver out of the window of his vehicle while evading a police car in pursuit. The confusion comes from the discrepancies found in the defendant’s story. According to the detective, who initially tried to pull over Thompson, the defendant stated that he picked someone up who he thought was his old friend but turned out to be a complete stranger.

Thompson told the detective that the stranger was armed and forced him to evade the police. The defendant also revealed that the armed stranger passed him the gun and decided to throw it outside his vehicle’s window. Judge David Reed predicted that there will be interesting issues that will need to be addressed as the case moves forward—a clear indication that Judge Reed was as confused as everybody else listening to the story.

Dept. 11 – Ramneet Singh:  Ramneet Singh attended the morning sessions for Yolo County Superior Court Dept. 11 and Fresno County Superior Court Dept. 12. In Yolo, there were a variety of short hearings with a few continuances or rescheduling. However, there was a sentencing for a case related to a first-degree burglary and the use of a firearm. Another case included the acceptance of a plea agreement. In Fresno, the morning calendar involved pre-trial hearings, arraignments, and conditional settlements.

Kelly Moran is currently a senior at Santa Clara University, though originally from Connecticut. She is majoring in English, with a focus on British Literature and Professional Writing, and is also minoring in Journalism.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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