Public Defender Presents Spirited Defense in Contentious Preliminary Hearing; Close Call, but Judge Rules against Defendant


By Michael Wheeler

SACRAMENTO, CA —A typical preliminary hearing quickly turned contentious this week in Sacramento County Superior Court Department 32, with both the prosecution and defense making frequent objections and the defense arguing that the defendant in the case is actually the victim.

Ultimately, because of the lower level of proof needed during a preliminary hearing, Judge Emily Vasquez found sufficient cause to set a trial date for Paul Yancy, on two felony counts of assault with a deadly weapon June 1.

The alleged victim in the case proved a difficult witness when he stepped to the stand to testify. He had begun drinking in the afternoon on Feb. 17, and, by his own estimation, had had five beers when he was hit over the head.

As a result of his drinking, the victim was largely unable to provide details about the incident. Prosecutor Allison Wieder became exasperated with the difficulty of getting him to give a straight answer, and the frequent objections of Assistant Public Defender Stephen Nelson also added to the challenge.

“Your Honor, is Mr. Nelson testifying?” she asked at one point.

During cross-examination, Nelson zeroed in on the alleged victim’s own criminal record, which included multiple convictions for battery or assault. However, when asked by defense attorney Nelson if he had committed those crimes, the victim denied that he had.

The exact details of his injury were also a matter of dispute.

While the victim testified that he had only had one gash, which had required six or seven stitches to shut, as well as a bump the side of a baseball, other witnesses stated that he had had two cuts on his head.

He could not speak to the specifics, saying, “I’m homeless, I don’t have a mirror.”

When police Officer Jason Meier responded to the scene, he found a group of people surrounding the victim, who “seemed pretty out of it” and was lying on the ground with blood beside him.

He testified that he had gathered that the fight had begun over alcohol, and that the victim had refused to give Yancy any, which then led to the altercation.

However, Officer Katie Rappazzo testified that she had been told otherwise at the scene. Instead, the alleged victim had taken offense at what he thought was an insult aimed at his mother.

“(The victim) put up his hands like he wanted to fight but never hit Mr. Yancy. (He) was intoxicated and fell into Mr. Yancy, and Mr. Yancy struck him three times with a wood board,” said the officer based on her report.

According to that bystander, “Yancy didn’t swing super hard, more like get away from me swings.”

Nelson used this testimony as the core of his defense, arguing that the evidence shows that his client should not be the defendant. “I’m interested in whether (the victim) should have been arrested for being the assailant, for being the perpetrator of this incident.”

He also called the police work of the officers present into question.

Two officers directly asked by the defense who had made the call to arrest Yancy were unable to give a straight answer, instead saying that the decision had been made in consultation with each other and with the help of bystanders.

“The police officers—nobody knows who’s in charge, they make a decision to arrest, and everything else just flows from it and now we’re here. There’s been no independent thought, no independent investigation. Nobody ever assessed this case correctly,” said the defense attorney.

DDA Wieder strongly disagreed with Nelson’s assessment of the case.

In her closing argument, she told the judge that evidence had been provided by three witnesses, with the “account that the victim…was hit on the head with a wooden plank, was found in a pool of his blood, had to go to the hospital.”

She also stated that the degree of violence as a result of swinging the board outweighed any possibility of reasonable self-defense. Nelson disagreed strongly with this statement, replying, “Self-defense is so I don’t get hurt. Not, I got hurt and now I can hit back.”

Judge Vasquez, however, felt that the case met the legal standard to be advanced to trial, noting, “I do find the evidence weak, but I find that it does satisfy the standard of probable cause. In that, there has been evidence presented that Mr. Yancy may have used unreasonable force in this case.”

She emphasized that her finding was based on the level of probable cause, seemingly implying that her decision would be more difficult were a higher level of proof necessary.

Yancy will go to trial on June 1. Nelson will continue to represent him after being reappointed Yancy’s public defender by Judge Vasquez.

Michael Wheeler is a junior at UC Davis, where he studies History and Economics. He is from Walnut Creek, California.

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