Commentary: DA and Sheriff Have Tried to Parlay Tragedy in Riverside County into Indictment on the System

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Riverside, CA – The Desert Sun editorial board early this week called out the judicial system, which they believe led to the death of a Riverside County Sheriff’s Deputy who was shot and killed during a traffic stop in late December.

“This tragedy clearly could have been prevented had California’s judicial system been working properly,” they wrote.

Sheriff Chad Bianco did not mince any words: “He should have been immediately sentenced to 25 years to life. We would not be here today if the judge had done her job.”

The editorial noted that the Association of Riverside County Chiefs of Police and Sheriff (ARCCOPS) penned a letter urging Riverside County Superior Court judges to “immediately stop the mass dismissal of criminal cases as the public safety crisis worsens.”

The letter was signed by 19 Riverside County law enforcement agency chiefs, Sheriff Bianco, and District Attorney Mike Hestrin.

The editorial added, “They make a plea with Riverside County judges to deal with the backlog with more urgency and creativity – floating the idea of night court hearings via Zoom, or bringing in retired judges. Both of which seem immediate and necessary at this point.

“The chilling question after this tragedy remains,” the editorial continued. “How many other high-level offenders with multiple strikes are driving around as we speak? How many court case dismissals have enabled them to do so? How many police officers are being put in unnecessary danger as they simply try to do their job? What about the safety of the general public?”

Riverside DA Hestrin immediately tweeted the article highlighting the above questions.

That tweet was retweeted by San Luis Obispo County DA Dan Dow, who added, “I wish this article wasn’t necessary. But so glad it was written. We must end the chaos by fully enforcing the law and protecting the people in our communities who rely on us to do so aggressively.”

But not everyone agrees the system is to blame.

A detailed release this week from the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA) explained what happened in this case. They argued “there have been serious and damaging misstatements that have been made to the press about the Judge’s handling of the William McKay case.”

They contend that in this case “the trial judge never allowed Mr. McKay to be released.” Instead, he was originally held on $950,000 bail. At his November 8, 2021, trial, he was found not guilty of the two most serious felonies and convicted on four lesser felony charges.

“Thereafter, a motion to reduce bail from $950,000 was made. The trial Judge ordered the bail to be set at $500,000. The court immediately ordered William McKay to be remanded to the custody of the Sheriff. A presentencing report was ordered on November 8, 2021. Both the prosecutor and the defense attorney stipulated to continue sentencing at least 4 times,” they explained.

At this point McKay made bail. While out on bail, McKay was arrested on new drug charges in San Bernardino County, and bail was set at $50,000—he posted bail and was released.

ABOTA argues, “The fact is the Trial Judge, who has been the target of so much public criticism, never allowed William McKay to be released other than setting bail at $500,000 after his convictions. The judge’s handling was legal and within guidelines.”

But beyond this case, the DA and Sheriff have attempted to use this tragedy to indict the entire system.

Lara Gressley, who ran for DA in Riverside last year, told the Vanguard that she disagreed with the decision by the judge here to lower bail which allowed for his release, but she also differentiated between this case and a whole host of other cases which were dismissed based on PC section 1382 considerations.

She said the Riverside dismissals which were based on “a solid legal foundation.”

Under Penal Code section 1382, defendants have a statutory right to a speedy trial. Indeed, in some places like San Francisco, there have been huge backlogs where people have been held in custody for months and even years awaiting trial. That has forced the public defender’s office in San Francisco to file a lawsuit.

“Our law guarantees Californians the right to a speedy trial within 60 days. It is a humanitarian crisis that we have over 100 people waiting in jail for months, some over a year, often in their cells for 23 hours a day; this kind of isolation and deprivation can cause irreversible long-term psychological damage to individuals and their families and their children,” said San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju in announcing a lawsuit in the fall of 2021—a matter that still has not been resolved. “It’s also a humanitarian crisis to have hundreds of others outside the jail, but still subject to the court’s orders while presumptively innocent.”

Gressley in Riverside believes the problem originated with the presiding judge requesting too many emergency order extensions.

“That was the beginning of the problem,” she said.

She also noted that the DAs were not open to settling cases for anything reasonable.

In a blog post, she noted, “In the end, I believe that too many emergency orders, poor planning, and a lack of available and reasonable dispositions created the problem. Is it really justice to have so many (possibly) guilty people go free? Not so much. But a defense attorney has the ethical obligation to pursue a dismissal for their client under those circumstances.”

She added that “a judge faced with a lack of good cause (no emergency orders extending time), and a lack of resources, has no choice but to dismiss when faced with the law set forth in Penal Code section 1382.”

None of this really applies to the San Bernardino case referenced by the Desert Sun—this was simply a judge making a decision on bail which allowed the release of someone convicted of a serious felony pre-sentencing.

This once again calls into question the efficacy of cash bail and the notion that poor people languish in custody and people with the means can buy their freedom—even temporarily. A lot of this does not have any consideration for public safety.

But while the tragedy is unthinkable and preventable, the answer is not to lobby Sacramento to address the emergency, it is for local officials to do a better job of managing their caseloads and figure out a way to get rid of backlogs through triage, reasonable plea offers, and dropping of cases where there is not a threat to public safety.

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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