Judge Lets Stand Plea Agreement in Yolo Murder Case

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Woodland, CA – Judge Reed on Wednesday rejected a prosecution motion to set aside a plea agreement that the victim’s family claimed to have misunderstood and was too lenient.

Tuala Auimatagi was accused of committing two murders in August 2019 and, while originally they were charged together, evidence arose that caused the cases to be addressed separately.  The first involved a drive-by in West Sacramento and the second occurred a week later in Richmond.

On August 12, 2020, the defendant, Tuala Auimatagi, was held to answer on charges related to the murders of Errik Sanchez and Bruce Wayne Allen.

At that time, “Criminalist and firearms expert Alex Taflya testified that the bullets recovered from Mr. Allen and the bullet recovered from Mr. Sanchez were fired from the same firearm assuming no subclass influence.”

Last summer, based on a motion from Public Defender Tracie Olson, who challenged the science behind the ballistics tying the shootings to the same person, Judge Reed, while denying the motion “to exclude all evidence of the similarities of markings on the bullets” relating to bullets found in West Sacramento and Richmond homicides, nevertheless agreed to “limit testimony of the similarities of the markings on the bullets.”

That proved critical to the stipulated plea agreement.

Judge Reed on Wednesday listened to impassioned pleas from the victim’s family for what they believed would be a more acceptable sentence.

One of the victim’s sister pointed out, “This whole three years, there has been no remorse. No, I’m sorry, not even in the plea agreement. We asked for her to take responsibility and plead guilty. She refused.”

The family complained that not only did she not take responsibility, but “you don’t wanna be held accountable yet. You’re not ready to be held accountable for your crimes. You’re not ready to be remorseful for taking two people’s lives and destroying families.”

Errik’s mother, who acted as spokesperson for the family for the purposes of the Marsy’s Law, told the judge, “Your honor, the plea agreement was not acceptable ever. When I met with Jeff Reisig, when my family and I met with the district attorney, I made it very clear that we would negotiate, but we wanted a guilty plea. We wanted her to say, I’m guilty. We wanted her to get the max term, which was 11 years. And the gun charges to be consecutive to that.”

Jonathan Raven representing the DA’s office, who had multiple DAs on this case, explained, “It seems like over the last few months or so, there’s been lots of references to individuals in jail being in cages. We hear that a lot and the mothers and the family of Errik Sanchez and Bruce Wayne will forever be in a proverbial cage for the rest of their lives. And I’ll bet those moms… would be willing to spend the rest of their lives in a jail cell if they could only have Errik and Bruce back.”

He read a letter from one of the family members, who noted, “I’m forwarding this to you so that you understand how exhausting it has been for my mom.”

Raven argued, “In my opinion, and based on this and other emails and meetings, the plea was forced onto her after a campaign to wear her down.”

He added, “She’s an elderly woman whose son was murdered and who raised his four kids until their mother returned a year and a half later, all the while working full time, taking them to counseling school meetings and financially caring all of the burden herself. She had had the support of his siblings, but she felt obligated to carry it all because it was Errik.”

Raven added, “As for Marsy’s Law, it does not give the victim’s veto power. Your honor knows that it does not take away the DA’s discretion, the California constitution, which is Marsy’s Law, the highest law on the land other than the US Constitution does require prosecutors to advise the victims and survivors of a plea agreement so that they understand what the agreement is so they can give some informed input.”

He later said, “What bothers me so much is not the justice in terms of the plea agreement. That’s not the issue here. The issue here is Marsy’s Law. And the fact that (the mother) did not understand because of so many things going on and because of the rush and because the jury was being sworn and we were pushing to make what we thought was the best deal and what we thought was the best thing we could do.”

He defended the work and actions of the DA’s working on this case, but argued, “That family did not understand the agreement. They’re all Marcy’s law victims, the siblings, the kids, and the mother. They’re not satisfied with the agreement. They didn’t understand the agreement and rather than proceed to sentencing. The people are asking that due to this issue with Marcy’s law, that this court set aside the plea agreement and set this case for trial.”

Tracie Olson, Yolo County Public Defender pointed out that the responsibility for informing the family fell to the DA’s, “And I don’t see anything in the declarations from Ms. Serafin or the declarations from Ms. Hernandez, that say they did not do their job.”

She noted, emails from Errik Sanchez’s mother, where she accepted the deal, “Her language in that email indicates, she very clearly did understand.”

Olson noted that what really changed in this case was the disposition in the Contra Costa case.

Olson said that she thinks “this is a proper resolution given the evidence” in this case, but “It’s not a proper resolution in terms of the worth of the men who died. Of course not. There’s nothing that could ever equal the worth of the men that died. The criminal justice system, frankly, isn’t set up to deal with grief, especially overwhelming grief, especially grief in this nature.”

She said, “My argument to you is a legal one. It’s a legal one that says that there is no legal cause from the district attorney to ask to withdraw from the plea. There’s no legal basis to say there’s a Marsy’s Law violation. There’s no legal basis to say that the district attorney’s office did anything that requires setting aside the plea.”

Judge Reed in ruling against the motion to set aside the verdict, acknowledged the tragic nature of this case.

“Whatever happens, it’ll never be enough – and I understand that,” the judge said.

The judge noted that a lot happened in this case which he has been involved in for the last 28 months, and noted, “The Contra Costa County case was severed. It was split. And it was because there was not sufficient evidence to tie them together in a legal sense to justify trying two cases from different counties.”

He further noted “that that case in Contra Costa county might not ever be filed because absent developments and finding witnesses and witnesses that might cooperate that case was not provable.”

The Judge addressed the issues with the changing faces of the prosecutors, and stated, “the perception that that has something to do with the, the interest in the da from the DA’s office is not supported by the information I have.”

He also noted that the defendant in this case, does not have an extensive criminal record. She has one felony conviction, and it was for receipt of a stolen vehicle, and that was six years ago.

Judge Reed pointed out, “The only other record she had was misdemeanor theft defenses. So she doesn’t have carjacking offenses, and I’m not sure how much your feelings are based upon what you thought her record is. But that is a record.”

He noted that the DA’s office in Yolo County in his 15 years on the bench has always taken victim’s rights very seriously.

“It’s very important to them. And they’re very proactive in conferring with victims in serious felony cases or violent felony cases. I’ve heard many times saying they won’t make a deal without conferring with a victim,” he explained.

He found that the DA’s office “acted in good faith when they thought (the mother) approved it.”

He added. “If there’s an argument that the family didn’t get reasonable notice, I understand that argument, but I can’t accept it under the circumstances of this case, because under the circumstances they were given notice, they were given an opportunity to talk with the prosecutor. And it was only later that they decided that it was not acceptable.”

Further, he noted, “if the district attorney thought they could easily win, get a murder conviction, this deal would not have been made.”

He added, “For those reasons, the court must deny the motion to set aside the plea agreement and we will proceed to sentencing.”

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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