Public Defender and Detectives Go Back and Forth Regarding Leading Questions during Preliminary Hearing

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By Gabriel Eskandari

MERCED, CA – During a preliminary hearing last week in Merced Superior Court for Joel Guerrero, Jr.,—a man accused of a string of pizza store robberies—Public Defender Beth Ann Lee focused on asking two of the witnessing detectives about their interrogation strategies and if they used leading questions.

In the end, the case was set for trial, although the judge agreed officers may have supplied information to Guerrero.

First, Detective Michael Ramirez was called as a witness.

During the questioning by Deputy District Attorney Gerard Egan, Detective Ramirez explained that he had been assigned to the string of robberies starting on May 5, more than a month before Guerrero, Jr.,’s arrest on June 8.

Guerrero was arrested after CHP located a vehicle they had placed an alert on after they had identified the vehicle used in a robbery of a Little Caesars in Delhi.

Detective Ramirez stated that Guerrero admitted to the crimes by reportedly saying, “Yeah, man, I did that sh**, that was obviously all me bro. I just had to eat, you know. I was f-ing starving.”

Detective Ramirez also stated that Guerrero told him he targeted pizza places because he believed there wouldn’t be armed guards.

Also, Detective Ramirez said Guerrero was hesitant to give information about the alleged robbery in Delhi, but that once he told Guerrero that he had footage of him parked at a nearby car wash, he became more forthcoming, explaining that he produced a knife at the register and asked for money.

Guerrero also admitted to a robbery that occurred a few hours later in Livingston, according to Detective Ramirez.

Regarding the motive, Detective Ramirez reported that Guerrero stated that he was out of money because of a pill addiction, but that he also worked and went to school and he was doing it in order to eat.

PD Lee then questioned Detective Ramirez.

She first asked if it were true if Detective Ramirez had sworn under oath that a different man matched the description of the robber, and Detective Ramirez responded affirmatively.

However, Detective Ramirez later stated that this other man was never arrested after search warrants for call detail records showed his phone to not be in the correct locations to show probable cause.

PD Lee then focused on the interrogations used toward her client. She first asked if during interrogation training he was taught to ask leading questions. Detective Ramirez stated he was not taught this.

“But in this interview, in fact, you asked a lot of leading questions of my client, did you not?” PD Lee asked.

“I did,” said Detective Ramirez, saying that he made that choice because he did not feel like Guerrero was being cooperative.

“So he wasn’t giving you the answers that you wanted?” PD Lee continued to ask. “I didn’t feel like he was giving me any answers,” responded Detective Ramirez.

“So you were helping him, and giving him leading questions?” PD Lee asked. “I didn’t feel like they were leading the way that I was asking them,” Detective Ramirez stated.

“But you were helping him with the facts, correct?” continued PD Lee.

Detective Ramirez responded by saying, “I felt that he did not want to incriminate himself, so when I asked him a specific question I wasn’t getting anything, and because there were multiple robberies I felt like I had to set the stage,” and saying that by doing so Guerrero’s memory seemed to be refreshed and that he opened up a bit more.

PD Lee then continued to prod: “As you’re setting the stage you’re writing the script for him.” Detective Ramirez disagreed.

“You’re asking him the facts that you believe to be true, correct?” PD Lee asked

“Okay, yeah,” Detective Ramirez said, seemingly reluctantly.

PD Lee eventually asked about the knife, which Detective Ramirez said was eight inches according to Guerrero. PD Lee noted that this was significantly longer than anything described by anyone interviewed.

Detective Ramirez later said he found a knife in Guerrero’s car, but that it wasn’t eight inches long.

Then, Detective John Pinnegar was called to the stand.

Under the questioning of DDA Egan, Detective Pinnegar stated that Guerrero admitted to a separate robbery of a Domino’s Pizza in Merced. According to Detective Pinnegar, Guerrero stated that he used a knife, demanded the money, was handed some cash, and fled all in a similar manner to the other crimes.

PD Lee first asked Detective Pinnegar about his history of taking interrogation classes, and then asked, “When you interview an individual, do you use leading questions?” Detective Pinnegar stated that he doesn’t believe that to be the case.

“Is it a good custom and practice to use leading questions in an interrogation?” further asked PD Lee.

Detective Pinnegar responded, “I can’t answer that question, I don’t know, I use my own technique. I ask the individual if they’re involved in this crime. I obviously have information prior to going into my interviews. I don’t personally call it an interrogation, I consider it an interview.”

“Do you help them with the facts if they seem to have trouble remembering them?” continued PD Lee. Detective Pinnegar denied this.

“Do you supply them with additional information if you feel as though they’re holding back?” asked PD Lee.

“If you’re referring to this case, your client stated he wasn’t familiar with the geographical area so I told him where the Domino’s Pizza was located,” responded Detective Pinnegar.

At the end of the hearing, Judge Carol K. Ash asked PD Lee if she had any arguments.

PD Lee argued that there was no identification of her client, and that the only evidence linking Guerrero to the crimes were his statements which were “based on the interrogation of a trained and skilled veteran detective, along with another detective, of a young man who was apparently suffering from both hunger and homelessness, and drug addiction. It was filled in with most of the details, if not all of the details, including the locations.”

PD Lee also argued that the brown handle folding knife that was found did not match the descriptions, given that one person interviewed had said black, one had said green, and that her client had said eight inches.

DDA Egan then argued that the discrepancies with Guerrero’s stories, such as how much money he received, was due to the fact that he committed so many robberies that it was hard for him to keep track.

Also, he argued that Guerrero admitted to everything and that the police had found a shirt in his car that matched the description that witnesses had pointed out.

Ultimately, Judge Ash ruled that there was enough evidence to hold Guerrero to answer to the robbery charges and the enhancement of use of a deadly weapon.

While she conceded that the detectives did supply some facts, she stated that Guerrero knew other facts, confessed, and that all the robberies were committed in a similar fashion.

Also, despite the varying knife descriptions, Judge Ash stated that the knife that was found matched the description of the knife used in the Delhi robbery.

The matter was set for trial, with arraignment on Dec. 10.

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About The Author

Gabriel is a recent graduate of UC Davis. He majored in Political Science.

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