Beginning To See The Light

by Bruce McEwen, May 11, 2011

Thomas Knight was looking at four years in prison for assault with a deadly weapon. He'd gotten into a fight with a friend. Maybe the friend was winning the hand-to-hand combat when Knight pulled a knife and sliced Friend bad enough for Friend to wind up at the emergency room getting himself stitched up.

Deputy DA Rayburn Killion considered Knight’s record, which was spotless, and offered to reduce the charges if the kid would cop to having done a life-threatening carve job on his pal.

Knight duly pled to assault with force likely to cause great bodily harm. If he hadn't pled out he'd be getting on the southbound bus, the grey-green one with the bars on the windows that you can't see out of. But instead of San Quentin, young Mr. Knight will sojourn at the much less stressful Mendocino County Jail for a period of months as he reconciles himself to five years of strict probation, meaning he'll get the bus ride for sure if he again comes to the attention of law enforcement.

A cynic commented that Knight got off light because he he's light, while Chef Fransen, who isn’t light, got packed off to state prison for non-sanctioned knife work.

Nope, race wasn't a factor here.

Knight is where Fransen was a year ago.

A year ago Fransen got put on probation and was advised to stay out of trouble, but Fransen got in trouble. The first time he was busted with a knife, he got probation. But Fransen got himself another knife, a switchblade, and this time he nearly killed a kid with it.

Why?

Because the other kid stepped on a red handkerchief.

Chef Fransen, it seems, has joined the Norteños street gang. Young Mexicans — mostly men — are killing each over symbols, not that they're the first people to do that.

Fransen’s family and friends were in court for the boy's sentencing. His mother took it hard, real hard. But she couldn't say her son hadn't been given big breaks before he got himself a free ride on the San Quentin bus.

The sentencing took place in Judge Ann Moorman’s court, her business for the afternoon.

DA David Eyster, who wants to put the brakes on gang-related crime in the County, and was handling the Fransen case himself, wasn’t present.

A bailiff went looking for him.

Eyster was in Department B, the Hon. William Lamb presiding.

The DA and Public Defender Linda Thompson were hashing out the matter of a Ms. McGinty, charged with trying to ignite her bedridden son on a premature funeral pyre which was, reportedly, intended to kill them both. Mom was found the next day asleep in her bath tub. Her exit strategy seems to have been, you could say, fatally flawed.

Thompson said she’d sent an offer, or counter-offer, to the DA that morning, but doubted he’d received it yet. She also noted that she doubted he would accept it considering the few words they had exchanged about the McGinty case in the meantime.

“At this point, your honor,” Thompson said, “we are further apart in our discussions than we were before. But I’m willing to waive the prelim to agree to the charges, if we can come back for a bail review next week.”

“One second, judge,” Eyster replied. He went over and whispered with Ms. Thompson, then said, “That’ll be okay. We’ll set it for arraignment and the complaint will serve for the information. Thank you, judge.”

Judge Lamb wondered why they couldn’t just do that right there and then.

“Alright,” Thompson said. “We’ll enter a not guilty plea and set it for jury trial.

Lamb set the trial for July 11th and bail at $250,000, with a bail review hearing for May 11th.

DA Eyster still couldn’t leave the room and get back upstairs for the Fransen matter.

He and Ms. Thompson proceeded to set a prelim date for Jason Frick, another young guy who often comes into contact with the forces of law and order in both Humboldt and Mendocino counties. This particular beef consists of stalking, possession of a destructive device and for being a felon in possession of a bunch of stuff a felon isn't supposed to possess.

Bail had been set at two million dollars, a firm indication that Frick, at least in the opinion of law enforcement, ought to be sequestered in a place he can't leave.

The Frick prelim was set for June 1st, and everyone went back to Judge Moorman’s court for the Fransen sentencing.

Chef Fransen’s lawyer, Jan Cole-Wilson, presented the court with opinions regarding her client’s suitability for an alcohol and drug treatment program, stating that alcohol had been a factor in the stabbing incident, as well as an on-going problem for Fransen. Ms. Cole-Wilson had gone into considerable depth investigating a suitable treatment program in hopes of keeping her client out of prison, where he would be tempted or compelled into the prison gang school of life.

“Considering his substance abuse problems and of course his age [18], we were hoping to see him get into a structured program, a residential treatment program, and we’ve found two that I think would be suitable. Both Jerico and Walden House have very good programs and they would have no problem finding him a bed as long as they had 30 days notice, which as we anticipate a substantial County Jail sentence, this would give time for notice. I especially think the Walden House program would be appropriate for Chef, because they will make sure he has his gang tattoos removed while he was there. I know some of these places feel that the tattoos are harmless, but at Walden they don’t play that game; they have a strong leaning toward instilling respect for others as well as self-respect. Jerico also has a very good program for making their participants responsible citizens. They are both in the Bay Area, which is important because we know how essential it is to have family involvement in the rehabilitation process.”

Ms. Cole-Wilson became somewhat emotional at this point, blinking back a tear, before resuming: “I just feel that he’s a very good young man, and if we give him this chance — everyone deserves a second chance, especially somebody so young — and, well, if we send him to prison at 18, we all know how he’ll suffer, and we also understand that in the end we will all suffer, so I would just ask the court to give him this one chance.”

Judge Moorman turned to DA Eyster and said, “Does any of this change your position.”

“No,” the DA replied. “I hate it that this would only be a lesson for Mr. Fransen to get some treatment for his substance abuse. The penal code is about punishment, not rehabilitation.  (Thanks to Jerry Brown, by the way who, during his first go-round as governor, eliminated a lot of prison rehab programs.) We have to remember what happened here. The victim in this case made the mistake of stepping on a red bandanna and for this he nearly lost his life! Now, if the court’s worried about his age and drinking problem, we have a solution for that in the California Department of Corrections, the 1203.3, and that is certainly an option to what I consider an 11th hour conversion.”

The 1203.3 is a 90-day evaluation at San Quentin where "the candidate" spends three months in the prison population while being “diagnosed” by the prison staff to see if he is serious about changing his ways.

“This is a case where we have to be concerned about the Willits community,” the DA said. “Giving away things like this [county jail time, a grant of probation and treatment rather than prison time], is how gangs get a hold on a community. They use it for recruitment, and they use it to promote more violence. This is a case where a young man didn’t learn a lesson the first time law enforcement took a knife away from him. Had he taken it seriously the first time we wouldn’t be here today. But we need to take the focus off Mr. Fransen, and put it on the victim, Terrence Young, who nearly lost his life.”

DA Eyster looked directly at Fransen and said, “He’s scared. Mr. Fransen wants us to believe he’s learned his lesson and we can focus on that or we can try to influence others not to follow in his footsteps. I think the probation recommendation [to deny probation and send Fransen to prison] is appropriate,” Eyster said.

Then the DA turned back to the judge: “These rehab programs, they’re not in the business of turning down people,” he said. “And nobody from any of these places called me and asked if he was an appropriate candidate for rehab.”

Judge Moorman thanked both lawyers and said both had “articulated” their case “very well. I did re-examine the violations from when he [Fransen] was on probation to get a breadth of meaning in this case and I am not going to place you on probation.”

A woman, probably Chef Fransen’s mother, began to cry, and there was some rustling in the seats as though people were suddenly uncomfortable over the mourning that had begun.

Judge Moorman had to speak over it: “However, I am going to take Mr. Eyster up on the 1203.3 diagnosis.”

The judge was also speaking directly to Chef Fransen, with occasional glances at the weeping woman, whose grief increased in volume as the  judge elaborated on her decision.

“Your age is something I’m concerned about,” the judge said. “But Mr. Young would be dead now except for a few very fortunate factors. I believe you have substance abuse issues, and I’m concerned with what CDC has to say so I will review your diagnosis when it comes back. But my focus is not on you, Mr. Fransen; my primary focus is on the community, as I think this incident could very well replicate itself. This was a minor disagreement over very fragile egos which resulted in you, Mr. Fransen, doing something very dangerous and — you’d re-armed yourself within 25 days! I am very very very troubled over this and I’m not at all convinced by your letter that I can protect the community by placing you on probation. Therefore…”

The weeping woman was wailing now.

“Therefore,” Judge Moorman said again (slightly louder), “I will send you to CDC for the 1203.3 diagnostic.”

Which means the grey-green bus for San Quentin, a  destination mothers don't want for their sons.

The implacable Eyster stood to say his office would prepare the order.

Chef Fransen looked down, defeated for a moment. But when he looked up he was angry, very angry. The kid's eyes blazed. He seemed to think he'd been wronged.

Judge Moorman said, “Now, Mr. Fransen what happens at these things is not … the outcome is not automatic. A lot of it is up to you. If you go with a certain attitude [defiance, perhaps?] the diagnosis will be predictable; on the other hand… The bottom line is, it’s up to you. There comes a time when you take responsibility for your conduct. In 90 days, if you can show you are serious about changing a course of conduct you’ve already started on, then, well, we’ll take it from there.”

Judge Moorman wasn’t finished speaking, but Fransen seemed to be done listening. He glowered sullenly, his 11th hour conversion having been rejected.

Some of you may remember the recent case of another 18-year-old who went on one of these 1203.3 holidays to San Quentin, one Mr. Eldon Hogan. Hogan left the Courthouse with the same fire in his eyes as Mr. Fransen but he came back with a lot less heat and smoke in his outlook — and a lot more light — as in “I’ve seen the LIGHT!”

Hogan had been scared straight. He definitely did not want to go back.

Moorman said to Fransen, “I’m saddened you’ve allowed this to happen to you at such a very young age, but I’m certain that placing you on probation at this point would not be protecting the community, which is my primary concern.”

Fransen’s mother was still crying. She thought it was all over for her son. In her grief she’d missed the nuance, the qualifier, the phrase the judge had used: “at this point…”

If he learns anything at 1203.3 Summer Camp at San Quentin, Chef Fransen will still have a shot at that second chance Ms. Cole-Wilson said she felt he deserved.

We’ll see.

* * *

Nicholas David Grant’s case was set for a prelim after lunch. Mr. Grant is up on a matter related to transporting devil weed. His prob is he's on probation out of Humboldt County for charges also related to the Northcoast's primary export crop.

Judge Henderson asked, “Why don’t we just go ahead and do it?”

What? A case goes forward as scheduled?

But first we had to hear the guilty plea from Tommy Knight, a reversal of Knight's earlier resolve to plead Not Guilty to charges of cutting his buddy severely enough to land ol' buddy in the emergency room.

At his arraignment, Knight had come on as tough as a $2 steak. But by now he was as tender as veal scallopini on the plate. He pled to pulling a knife on his, uh… friend and stabbing his friend with it. And tossed his fate, like a cavalier throwing his coat over a mudpuddle for a lady, on the mercy of the court.

Knight's no dummy. It was the perfect gesture, and it worked beautifully.

Judge Richard Henderson smiled approval at the lad, a young-looking 18. But the judge put a little kicker in the deal — (more kicks than pricks, thus quoth the poet!): “If you break your [felony] probation, you will go directly to State prison… I just wanted to make that clear; do you understand, Mr. Knight?”

Tommy Knight’s a white boy; he hadn’t much color, but what little he had drained out of his face when the judge, who can instill pure fear in the unrighteous, asked Knight if he understood his options.

Knight said he did.

“What about this Nicholas Grant prelim!” Judge Henderson thundered. “Are the lawyers here? Why can’t we go forward with this?!”

Attorney Eric Rennert of the Public Defender’s Office, who had been assigned seven new clients that morning, was a little slow to respond. He’d been trotting around the three criminal courts, herding his clients and their kinfolk like a stock dog at a livestock auction.

Rennert has conducted over 50 Motions to Suppress Evidence in the past year wherein the witnesses (i.e., cops) blandly contradicted their reports on the stand as Judge Henderson nevertheless found for the State. So Mr. Rennert wasn’t perhaps quite prepared to proceed when Grant's prelim was called.

Judge Henderson asked, “Shall we start the Grant prelim, then?”

Ms. Cathy Livingstone of the PD's office suggested the court consider the Kyle S. Jones’s matter, briefly. She might have been holding things up long enough for Rennert to appear.

“It’ll only take a moment,” she said.

The judge fumbled through the files and found one, finally, announcing, “Mr. Jones, Mr. Kyle Jones?”

“Catherine Livingstone for Mr. Jones who is present and in custody, your honor.”

“Katherine Houston for the People.”

(Ever notice how the DAs never say “Your Honor”?)

Ms. Houston announced, “We’ve made a new offer.”

And Ms. Livingstone added, “We’ll know by later tonight if there’s going to be a plea. Can we put it on for Monday, the 9th?”

By then Mr. Rennert had the Nick Grant file in his hand and was ready to go.

Deputy DA Shannon Cox she called her witness, Sergeant Jonathon Donahue of the Willits Police.

Sgt. Donahue said that on April 17th he stopped a Ford F-250 pickup and searched it. He didn’t say why he'd stopped the truck.

Deputy DA Cox: “Did you find anything?”

Sgt. Donahue: “Yes. Eleven pounds of marijuana.”

Cox: “Did you ask Mr. Grant what he was doing with it?”

Donahue: “He told me it would produce two to three pounds of bud, and that he wanted it out of the house.”

Cox: “And where was his house?”

Donahue: “He said he’d been staying with a friend in Garberville.”

Nick Grant wanted the dope wayyyy out of the house, it seems, Willits being 70 miles south of Garberville.

Cox: “Did he tell you about his probation status?”

“Yes, he did. He said he was on probation for transporting marijuana.”

“Did he tell you who this marijuana belonged to?”

“Yes, he said it was his.”

“Nothing further.”

Deputy PD Rennert rose to cross.

“Did he tell you whether or not he had a medical marijuana recommendation?”

“He did, yes.”

“Did he show it to you?”

“Yes, he did.”

“He didn’t indicate to you he was selling marijuana, did he?”

“No.”

“Find any indicia of sales?”

“Objection. The people are not charging him with sales.”

“Objection sustained.”

“What did you pull the vehicle over for?”

“Objection. Relevance.”

“Objection sustained.”

“Did you have probable cause?”

“Objection. Relevance.”

“Objection sustained.”

“No further questions.”

Probable cause to make the stop?

Irrelevant, apparently.

Ms. Cox said, “The People would like to offer into evidence a probation order out of the state of Arizona for the transportation of marijuana by Mr. Grant. The People ask to hold the defendant on the sole count. He was not to possess or transport any marijuana in excess of the amount needed for his medical needs.”

Mr. Rennert replied, “If we were to read from the probation order from Arizona, it is somewhat vague. The 11 pounds of unprocessed marijuana would have made only two or three pounds of bud marijuana, and it’s ambiguous whether this was an unreasonable amount."

Judge Henderson plowed on, “The court finds sufficient evidence to hold Mr. Grant for transportation of marijuana, a violation of his probation. Even though he has shown evidence of a valid medical recommendation, whether the amount was reasonable, that’s is something the defense has to prove, not The People."

Mr. Grant probably won't be extradited to Arizona because Arizona is more broke than Mendocino County, and it costs money to extradite people, and in the scheme of criminal things Mr. Grant is hardly a big fish.

The DA will probably wind up playing Let's Make A Deal on this one.

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