By Katherine Coviello and Simran Chahal
SACRAMENTO, CA – Sacramento County Superior Court Judge James E. McFetridge Wednesday denied a motion to remove a prior juvenile strike conviction that was about 11 years old, but did reduce the sentence from 10 years to about seven years and eight months.
Aaron Dexter was charged with residential burglary. And, his attorney, Larenda Rai Delaini, filed a sentencing brief regarding what is called a “Romero” motion. The prosecution was heard first, and explained why it did not file a motion in response.
“The reason the People did not file a direct opposition to Ms. Delaini is because a Romero motion has already been run in this case…the People filed an opposition to the court on Sept. 16, 2020. It was previously heard, argued, ruled on, and denied in this courthouse by Judge Steve White. That occurred on Oct. 29, 2020,” stated Danny Lee, the deputy district attorney.
Lee noted, “I want to briefly read Judge White’s ruling… ‘if [the defendant] were apparently crime-free of all the years since then until now, I would likely grant the Romero motion, but he wasn’t. I note that there are six new criminal charges, four of them felonies. I am also concerned about the sexual offenses. So, the Romero motion is not granted on the landscape that stands now.’
“What Judge White is referring to in these six conventions in between his strikes are first a DUI in 2014, a second DUI in 2016, domestic violence related violation of a restraining order in 2018, battery in 2018, and receiving stolen property as well as the possession of methamphetamine in 2019,” explained Lee
Lee continued, “Ms. Delaini notes that none of the defendant’s convictions, since the juvenile strike offense, involve violence, the threat of violence, and not a risk to public safety. I would strongly disagree with that. There is violence, there is a threat of violence, he is a risk to public safety, and he has disregarded court orders before.
“I will note that the defendant was on, at least, three grants of probation at the time of these incident. We are talking about someone who has had the opportunity to enter into drug rehab and he chose not to do so. We are talking about someone who committed crimes, while he was still on probation,” Lee argued.
“We are talking about significant crimes. Of course, the court heard, in this jury trial, the burglaries in this case. For those reasons, I would ask the court to adopt probation’s recommendation and I would also ask the court to deny the defense’s Romero motion which was already heard and denied by Judge White in 2020,” Lee concluded.
“First and foremost, I was not aware of the initial Romero motion that was filed, as I was not counsel at that time. In any event, what I heard Mr. Lee read from the decision of Judge White, (he) was talking about the landscape,” stated Delaini.
Delaini continued, “The landscape has changed for Mr. Dexter since that Romero motion was heard. First and foremost since then, the court heard the jury trial in this case. The court heard considerable evidence concerning Mr. Dexter’s addiction and the role that might have played in these underlying crimes.
“Additionally, the landscape has changed since the jury has found him ‘not guilty of the third residential burglary which was still pending at the time Judge White ruled on it. Since Judge White made that decision, the People v. Abella decision has come out… and the court found it to be an abuse of discretion for the trial court to fail to strike a juvenile adjudication,” Delaini argued.
“The fact that he may have been 16 does not change the fact that it is 11 years old,” Delaini exclaimed
Delaini explained, “I do acknowledge and we do so in the Romero motion that Mr. Dexter has obtained six misdemeanor convictions since the time of that prior strike adjudication. The importance of those prior convictions is…they are all misdemeanors.”
“I understand Mr. Lee’s argument that battery is a violent offense. It’s not within the meaning of our laws. In fact, this court knows you can be convicted of battery by spraying some with water or spitting on them. Offenses that are not violent by nature. I don’t know the underlying circumstances of that battery offense are. Given it was a misdemeanor, I assume it was not entirely violent,” further argued Delaini.
Delaini concluded, “In addition to everything in the Romero motion sentencing brief, we do believe that striking the strike, in this case, is appropriate. As Judge White pointed out at the time, the landscape has changed considerably for Mr. Dexter since that Romero motion was denied more than one year ago.”
Delaini also noted that Mr. Dexter will be required to enroll in a substance abuse program after release from custody, and one program offered to “help get inmates back on the right track.”
After both sides made their arguments, the judge discussed how “the current offenses were serious crimes” and “continued behavior that is noteworthy in this case.” Furthermore, the judge noted that “he has been in jail, awaiting trial and awaiting sentence. That’s not a rehabilitation program, that’s forced sobriety.”
The judge queried “would dismissing the prior conviction fall within the spirit of the law or the general purpose of the three-strike law? No, it would not. Would the contemplated aggregate sentence be injustice? No, it would not.
“Based on the factors that I set, it would not be in the interest of justice to dismiss the prior juvenile adjudication,” Judge McFetridge concluded.
After the Romero motion was denied, the defense attorney argued to be heard on reducing the original sentence from 10 years to about eight years.
As mentioned in the Romero sentencing brief, “probation declined to find any circumstances in mitigation regarding the offenses or regarding the offender. The mitigating factor exists that Mr. Dexter’s criminal conduct was partially excusable for some other reason not amounting to a defense. Namely, that would be is substance abuse addiction,” argued Delaini.
Delaini explained that “the property taken by Mr. Dexter was small amounts of money, food, and alcohol. Regarding the credit cards that were taken, it was much less than $50. Mr. Dexter was motivated, in part, by a desire to provide necessities of life for himself. That necessity being shelter,” as he was found asleep in one of the residences that he broke into.
Delaini continued, “We are not suggesting these offenses are insignificant, but his criminal record, with the exception of the adjudication from 11 years ago, is all minor conduct. Misdemeanor offenses that are all related to his substance abuse issues.”
Lastly, “Mr. Dexter was suffering from a mental or physical condition…that related to his drug addiction. Concerning the aggregating factors, admittedly, I chuckled when I read probation’s report for the first time because probation [stated]..that these crimes involved planning, sophistication, or professionalism,” Delaini stated.
Delaini argued that “there was no planning, nothing sophisticated or professional about what Mr. Dexter did here. He entered through an open window in one of the apartments and entered through an unlocked door of another apartment…There is absolutely nothing professional or sophisticated about that.
“Because of that and the court’s ruling on the Romero motion, Mr. Dexter respectfully asks this court to sentence to an aggregate term of eight years,” Delaini said.
“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that the aggravating factors, in this case, are outweighed by the mitigating factors even though probation did not find any mitigating factors. I think an eight-year sentence is appropriate given…that Mr. Dexter has never served a sentence longer than 150 days, never had the benefit of a program, and never had the benefit of supervised release,” explained Delaini.
“For those reasons, we are asking the court to impose the aggregate term of eight years,” concluded Delaini.
Prosecutor Danny Lee noted that while three of the four victims did not want to make a victim impact statement, one did. However, to date, no one has provided a victim statement despite being provided with multiple opportunities and guidelines on how to do so.
“I know that they [the victims] wanted to thank the court for the time. They are happy to put this behind them and have some closure.” shared Lee.
Lee proceeded to illustrate the planning and sophistication he claimed was necessary for the crimes. “We are not talking about thousands of dollars… we are talking about somebody who broke in and victimized two sets of victims,” he stated before describing how Mr. Dexter violated the place the victims felt safe.
DDA Lee said Dexter didn’t just take alcohol and food, but went into one of the victim’s bedrooms and went through her hamper, laundry, underwear drawer, and closet, and took jewelry as well as a jar of coins.
Entering this apartment required key fobs as well as passing through multiple security doors in a luxury apartment complex, Lee said, noting, “This wasn’t just necessity. This wasn’t just ‘I ran into the house for bread or for milk.’ This is someone who went in there for a little bit more than that. I think we saw that in the record.”
The People then asked the court to adopt a probation recommendation.
Delaini responded to the prosecution, as she stated, “Mr. Lee made a point about the fact that these victims felt safe in their homes, but that is not an aggravating factor. In fact, for this court to consider the fact that the victims were home at the time to aggravate, the sentence, in this case, would be an impermissible dual use of facts, and the reason why is that the jury found true the Penal Code section 667.5 which already increases this offense from just a serious strike felony to a violent strike felony.”
Delaini continued by claiming that these crimes lacked sophistication due to a prevalence of tailgating and unlocked security gates which made it very easy to just walk in.
Dexter then addressed the court, claiming the irony of how Judge McFetridge had also overseen his juvenile conviction.
After expressing a desire for sobriety and reflecting on his experience of being incarcerated, he stated, “People were hurt and I am affected by that because I have children. I have a love for mankind now. I can actually confidently embrace that feeling and express it in fuller detail due to my sober state of mind so whatever does happen with this sentencing is deserved.”
“You had… 12 who never met each other in their life come together, were vetted, were questioned by your attorney, by the prosecution and they, I think, worked hard on reaching their verdict. They actually found you not guilty of one of the burglaries, considering all the evidence,” Judge McFetridge stated.
Judge McFetridge added, “I hope you realize that you got a fair trial here subject to whatever appellate issues that there may be, but I think the process, in this case, worked well, and now we have to come to sentencing.”
Judge McFetridge found the defendant ineligible for probation. While he did consider it, there were several deterring factors: including the serious nature of the felonies as well as the fear for safety the victims faced.
“I don’t know that there is enough evidence to say that this is sophisticated, but I disagree that this was a situation where the defendant stumbled through a few open doors…I do think this required some planning,” Judge McFetridge acknowledged.
He mitigated this, discussing Dexter’s homelessness, alcohol addiction, and how the crimes were committed to avoid altercations and to take smaller items, while noting a “disturbing” exception of going through one of the victim’s items.
Dexter was sentenced to a total of seven years and eight months.