The Vanguard Week in Review: Court Watch (April 19 to April 23, 2021)

 

Compiled by Kathryn Wood

The Davis Vanguard is an online news forum that provides coverage of criminal justice reform and the courts throughout California and the nation. In 2006, the Davis Vanguard began to cover groundbreaking local news concerning government and policy issues affecting cities, schools, and communities in Davis and Yolo Counties. 

Over the past few years, the Vanguard has also extended to Sacramento and its surrounding regions. The team includes 40 to 50 interns who report on live court proceedings in more than six different counties throughout California, including the State Capitol of Sacramento, the Greater San Francisco Bay Area, the Central Valley, and Southern California. 

This week the Vanguard interns and news reporters watched hearings in Sacramento, Yolo, Fresno, and Minneapolis courthouses. A couple of our interns viewed the closing arguments of the Derek Chauvin hearing, who was charged for the murder of George Floyd. The following are some stories covered this week:

Monday – April 19, 2021

Sacramento County Superior Court

Roselyn Poommai – Depts. 5, 24: Roselyn observed Sacramento Superior Court Depts. 15 and 24. In Dept. 15, Defendant Dominic Coates appeared on a motion to suppress a recorded interrogation interview as evidence. The defense claimed that Coates, who had not slept in the past 24 hours and was high on heroin at the time, was not in the right state of mind for the interview. The recording allegedly shows Coates fast asleep on the interrogation room’s floor and chair while waiting for the detectives to enter the room. He also repeatedly nodded off during the initial intake when the detectives were inquiring about baseline questions and informing him of his Miranda rights, which had to be read twice. Judge Kevin McCormick adjourned the court until 3 p.m. later on Monday to review the recording before establishing the next steps.

In Dept. 24, Defendant Fernando Baco faced domestic violence charges after allegedly physically assaulting his wife of seven years. Though living separately, Baca appeared at the victim’s front porch before covering her mouth and forcing her back inside. He then took her phone and dragged a couch in front of the door to prevent her from escaping, monitoring her the entirety of the night before she was able to escape the next morning after he left for the bathroom. The victim told an officer that morning that Baca had allegedly hit her head with a frying pan, punched her multiple times, and choked her the night prior. Baca’s next court appearance will be on June 2, 2021, in Dept. 60.

Yolo County Superior Court 

Ankita Joshi – Dept. 1: Defendant Gabriella Ann Sigala was present in Yolo County Superior Court Dept. 1 on charges for a probation violation. Judge Tom Dyer read that the defendant had been on 48 months probation, which she had violated by failing to serve 15 days in the county jail in 2009. The defendant continuously interrupted Judge Dyer to try to explain the reasons why she had failed to serve time. Judge Dyer repeatedly warned the defendant that anything she said could be used against her. However, Sigala was adamant on speaking, and claimed that she didn’t know she was on probation. She stated that she never admitted to being drunk while driving on her 2008 charges. Additionally, she claimed that officers did not conduct a sobriety test, but just handcuffed her and brought her to the police station. At this point, Judge Dyer appointed a public defender for Sigala, and passed the issue for a later time.

Fresno County Superior Court 

Derrick Pal – Dept. 1: Concerned about the path a young 21-year-old defendant is headed with charges of driving under the influence, a judge tries to have a heart-to-heart conversation to finally get through to him in an arraignment here in Fresno County. Defendant Alejandro Hernandez is charged with driving a motor vehicle under the influence of drugs and driving with a suspended license.  Deputy District Attorney Brian Exline explained the factual basis of the case, stating, “the reason for the stop in the new case was to deal with a traffic collision with two parked vehicles.” The defendant was alleged to have marijuana in his system, and he was on DUI probation. “It should also be noted, he had the prior DUI in 2019, and this DUI before he was 21 years old,” stated DDA Exline.

After consideration of this information, Judge Terrence sentenced the defendant to three years of informal misdemeanor probation, where he is ordered to obey all federal, state, and local laws, which include traffic laws. The defendant is additionally ordered to not drive a motor vehicle with any measurable amount of alcohol in his system and submit to a chemical test for BAC or drug content on any future DUI arrest. After reading the sentences, Judge Terrence emphasized, “Mr. Hernandez, sir, if the alarm bell isn’t going off in your head about some decisions you have been making here, sir, I don’t know another way to get your attention aside from placing you in custody.” Judge Terrence tried to get through to the defendant, explaining how serious it is for a 21-year-old to be facing potential charges of murder if he continues to drive under the influence. A probation review hearing is scheduled on Monday, August 30 at 8:30 a.m. in Dept. 1.

Minneapolis 

Will McCurry: I watched the closing arguments of the Chauvin trial for the murder of George Floyd. During my shift, I was able to watch all of Prosecutor Steve Schleicher’s closing argument and a very small portion of Defense Attorney Eric Nelson’s. Schleicher’s argument composed of him explaining to the jury how the prosecution team proved murder in the second degree, murder in the third degree, and manslaughter in the second degree. By showing the jury that the prosecution team proved Chauvin guilty on all three counts, they had to prove he committed each element of every count beyond a reasonable doubt.

During his closing argument, Schleicher informed the jury for a second time what the medical examiners ruled Floyd’s death as. Schleicher had four doctors testify that it was not a sudden cardiac arrhythmia and one doctor testified that it wasn’t a heart attack. Schleicher also had seven use of force experts testify that Chauvin’s use of force was excessive and unreasonable.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Sacramento County Superior Court 

Esha Kher – Dept. 11: I heard a probable cause hearing in which the detectives had to refresh their recollection before answering almost every question,  the defense also brought to light the incompetencies and inefficiencies on the detectives part in making their report. Despite the charge in this case being the passing of a verbal threat that could lead to bodily injury and the probable cause assessing the specific, immediate, and unequivocal nature of it, the detective and the police officer on the case failed to include the direct statement of the victim including a direct quote of the threat in their report. The case ended with the judge finding sufficient cause for the charges, nevertheless.

Michael Wheeler – Dept. 32: Paul Yancy’s preliminary hearing turned contentious today due to the victim’s cursory testimony and public defender Steve Nelson’s assertion that his client should properly be the victim. Police reported to a fight at a homeless encampment and found the victim Sadya Raj lying on the ground after being struck multiple times by a wooden board by Yancy. Raj had been drunk at the time and remembered very few details of the incident. However, he seemed to have approached the wheelchair-bound defendant after misinterpreting a remark which he thought was an insult aimed at his mother. After putting his hands up in a fighting position, he fell onto the defendant, at which point he was hit.

Nelson was not complimentary of the policing, saying, “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.” However, Judge Emily Vasquez forwarded the case to trial, saying, “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.” The case will return for trial on June 1.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Sacramento County Superior Court 

Roselyn Poomai – Dept 21: Roselyn witnessed a lengthy, two-hour preliminary hearing in Sacramento Superior Court Dept. 21 regarding Defendant Jesus Sandoval, who faces DUI and vehicular manslaughter charges. On the night of the incident, Sandoval had been driving under the influence with a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit at high speeds before sideswiping into a parked car and the nearby victim. The victim was taken to the hospital and pronounced deceased from blunt force trauma to her leg and head due to the impact. Upon the court’s adjourning, the prosecutor read a heartfelt letter from the victim’s family addressed to Sandoval that moved the entire court. The defendant could be seen blinking to hold back tears as he took in their words of forgiveness and listened to the impact of his actions that night. Sandoval was released on O.R. with non-financial probation conditions and will return for his trial-readiness conference on June 24.

Hongyi Wen – Dept. 25: Hongyi Wen witnessed two preliminary hearings. First one involved three defendants Elijah Filson, Jacob Gartrell, and Jack Moore. All three defendants on Jan. 19, 2021 attempted an escape at the CDCR. Officer Joseph Semas was assigned to review the CCTV footage that captured the incident. He testified that on the video three defendants climbed over the first wire fence and jumped into the facility recreational area, then continued to run along the fence line. One of the defendants tried to climb over the second wire fence, but jumped back down. The second witness officer Ali Bryant testified the similar factual basis for the case. Judge ruled that defendants had committed the alleged charges, and the trial date is set on June 14, 2021.

The second preliminary hearing was a domestic violent case. The defendant Michael Maldonado allegedly got into an argument with the victim, Maldonado chased the victim when she left their trailer and allegedly choked her. Maldonado dragged the victim back to the house. The next day, the victim’s family came to pick up the victim. While they were trying to drive away, Maldonado chased after them and held up a gun pointed upwards to the sky. He threatens the victim to not leave otherwise he will shoot her. The judge ruled that Maldonado committed all the charges and set no bail. The next trial date is set on May 10, 2021.

Will McCurry – Dept. 32: I sat in Sacramento Superior Court Dept. 32 for defendant Angel Cortez’s preliminary hearing. Cortez is charged with one count of violation of Penal Code 459, burglary. It’s alleged that Cortez burglarized the victim’s house on or about Sept. 5, 2020, at approximately 9:58 a.m. The victim was informed that there was someone in his backyard by his neighbor and the victim called the police.

When the deputy arrived, he encountered Cortez in the backyard and said that he was compliant with him. Deputy Andy Nguyen testified that the side fence leading to the backyard looked like it had been kicked since some of the wood at the bottom was broken. He also testified that the house looked unkept and appeared that most of the house hadn’t had any maintenance in a while. Cortez was found guilty that the charge had been committed by judge Emily Vasquez. His jury trial is set for June 7, 2021.

Fresno County Superior Court 

Ankita Joshi – Dept. 10: There was some confusion between Defendant Tou Xiong and his public defender today in Fresno County Superior Court. During Xiong’s preliminary hearing, he entered a no contest plea on domestic violence charges. However, once he had entered into his plea, and the court was moving onto another case, the victim from Xiong’s case asked to speak to the court. The victim stated that the District Attorney’s office did not contact her about the status of the preliminary hearing or the plea that Xiong had taken. At this point, DDA Adam Christopherson did mention that he had tried to reach her the previous day, but had been unable to leave a voicemail. Regardless, the victim proceeded to ask the court if a peaceful contact order could be issued to Xiong, but this was denied by Judge Francine Zepeda who stated that Xiong needed to complete his appointed classes before the peaceful contact order could be granted. Defendant Xiong also asked if he could change his plea because he did not know about the no contact order that was a condition of his current plea deal. However, regardless of the victim’s statement, Judge Zepeda held that the plea that was entered by Xiong is valid. As the court proceeded onto another case, Xiong and his public defender could be heard arguing about what the next steps would be in Xiong’s case.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Sacramento County Superior Court 

Natasha Feuerstein – Dept. 9: Judge Helena R. Gweon admitted a plethora of defense attorneys and defendants from multiple prisons into the virtual courtroom held over Zoom Thursday morning. After much technical difficulty, scheduling for preliminary hearings involving all five of the defendants in three different cases resumed. Defendants Stephen Dunckhurst, Bryon Mayfield, and Danny Thompson are set for a preliminary hearing on August 5. All three defendants have been charged with two felony counts of attempted murder and prisoner assault with a deadly weapon or force. Stephen Dunckhurst is also involved in two other cases. The first is with defendant Joshua Dunn, who is charged with felony counts of murder, prisoner assault with deadly weapon or force with malice aforethought while serving a life sentence, and the possession or manufacture of a weapon in prison. This case is also set for preliminary hearing on August 5. The second case Dunckhurst is implicated in involves another defendant, Jacob Kober, who is charged with felony counts of murder, prisoner assault with deadly weapon or force with malice aforethought while serving a life sentence, and the possession or manufacture of a weapon in prison. Kober faces capital punishment of the death penalty, and his case is set for a live, in-person preliminary hearing on Friday, April 30.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Sacramento & Fresno County Superior Court 

Dorrin Akbari – Dept. 16: Dorrin observed various hearings in Sacramento Dept. 16 and Fresno Dept. 30 with judges Delbert Oros and Heather Jones presiding, respectively. Of note was a case involving two co-defendants, Austin Hamilton and Akieam Harris, facing an identity theft charge. Harris was present in court with his counsel, but Hamilton failed to appear. Though DDA Kelli Kellermann had already outlined a deal, she wouldn’t offer it without having both co-defendants present. “In a sense, we’re all being held hostage by Hamilton’s non-appearance this morning,” said Judge Oros. Further proceedings were scheduled for May 4 to give Hamilton a final opportunity to appear. Harris expressed frustration at having to stay in custody because of his co-defendant’s actions: “They have no evidence on me. All of the evidence is on him. I’m suffering for someone else’s deeds right now.” Both Judge Oros and DDA Kellermann sympathized with Harris, promising to move forward separately with Harris’ case if Hamilton fails to appear at the next hearing.

Sophia Barberini – Dept. 63: Sophia sat in on a Humphrey motion for David Jackson in Dept. 63. The defendant was arrested after he was accused of hitting a man with a baseball bat, fleeing the scene, and then being found with a loaded firearm, methamphetamines, a scale, and two baseball bats. Bail for the defendant was initially set at $1 Million, but Public Defender Timothy Douglass filed the Humphrey motion in hopes to have his client released on OR so that he may enter a drug treatment program. DDA David Lee vehemently opposed the OR release, citing a long list of the defendant’s past convictions, dating back to 1993. Public Defender Douglass referred to conflicting witness accounts of the crime and the fact that the majority of the defendant’s prior convictions had been drug convictions in an attempt to convince Judge Timothy Frawley to release the defendant. Judge Frawley, however, asserted that the defendant does not appear to have changed and decided to hold the defendant on no bail. Public Defender Douglass, clearly shocked by the move from bail to no bail, cited the Humphrey case and argued that prior convictions cannot be the basis of bail assessments. Judge Frawley, seemingly agitated by the defense’s argument, decided to set bail at $250,000.

Kathryn Wood is a third year at UC Davis, majoring in Political Science-Public Service and minoring in Professional Writing and Environmental Policy Analysis and Planning. She is from Petaluma, California.


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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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