Please Don’t Quote Me On That

by Bruce McEwen, July 13, 2011

“Everyone around here’s so gutless,” a defense lawyer exclaimed in frustration at the rulings of local judges, quickly adding, “Oh, don’t print that!”

A number of serious cases had been heard, and the judges, always cautious, were reluctant to issue their decisions without careful review of the transcripts. The rulings, when they came, were all in favor of the prosecution.

No surprise there.

Noah Shinn was held to answer by Judge David Nelson on the DA’s charge that Shinn was responsible for getting a kid killed in a Laytonville home invasion robbery last year. The allegation is that Shinn Senior and persuaded Shinn Junior and two of Shinn Junior's friends to rob a neighbor of her marijuana. The neighbor, armed with a .357, came up shooting and Shinn Junior's buddy was shot dead.

Timothy Elliott’s motion for a new trial was denied by Judge Richard Henderson. Henderson held that Elliott, of the Hopland rez, got a fair trial with Public Defender Linda Thompson as his lawyer despite a very convincing argument by Elliott’s newly assigned attorney Jan Cole-Wilson that he did not get either a capable defense or a fair trial.

Ryan Hutto’s motion to suppress the evidence in a small-time pot bust was not — not yet, anyway — denied by Judge Ann Moorman. Judge Moorman said she needed more time but indicated Hutto's motion was not looking too good.

We've heard complaints that DA David Eyster is going light on pot cases. I asked Eyster about it.

He handed me a persuasive stat sheet. “Okay, here’s the perception:

The DA’s not prosecuting pot cases. And here’s the facts: The DA is prosecuting pot cases, lots of them. Taking all the different kinds of pot cases, such as cultivation, possession for sale, transportation, et cetera, from July 1, 2010 to December 30, 2010 there were 34 convictions. That was the last six months of my predecessor’s administration. Now, for the first six months of my administration, from January 1, 2011 to June 30, 2011 there were 66 convictions. So the perception and the facts don’t always jibe.”

Back in court, Judge Moorman, noting the presence of Deputy DA Killion, Assistant Public Defender Rennert and, I guess, me, she said, “Well, I see all the great legal minds are present so let’s begin, shall we?”

The irrepressible Rennert is one of the hardest working lawyers in the courthouse. As the go-to guy for all the tweekers and crazies, Rennert conscientiously does his best for all them. Mendocino County may be famous for marijuana, but methamphetamine’s the drug that causes people to run spectacularly off the rails. And Mendo being Mendo, people who rightly belong in the state hospital system instead appear, time and again, in jail and in court. Add Rennert’s extra-curricular devotion to the drug court, and I was a little irritated by the judge's mild sarcasm. Of course it could have been aimed at me and, if it was, perfectly justified.

Rennert cited the recent Supreme Court case. Judge Moorman said she’d read it and so what?

“Well, your honor,” Rennert said being careful enough to eliminate any trace of disrespect, “It could, I suppose, be read rather narrowly…”

Judge Moorman agreed brightly that “narrowly” was precisely her reading.

“Yes, that’s true,” she said. “And I’m going to be out of the jurisdiction next week, so if you’d like to write a brief I would appreciate a courtesy copy.”

Later, I asked Rennert what it was all about. He said his client was caught with some pot and the arresting officer had testified that any time there’s pot involved, the perp could be armed and dangerous. That dubious assumption had apparently been made by a local cop, and the Supreme Court, now dominated by rightwing crackpots, said the assumption was a logical one. Rennert reached past me and straightened a picture of a judge hanging on the wall.

“Come on,” he laughed. “In Mendocino County? You gotta be kidding me!”

Pot and guns. You bet. People kill each other over pot all the time. But the average stoner tooling down 101? He probably wouldn't be strapped. Of course from a cop's perspective, and who can blame them, the least likely perp can come up firing. Happens all the time.

Meantime, people are just as likely to try to kill their own sweet wives for reasons having to do with the love drug, and they might try it without a gun.

Mr. Steven Chiriboga, for instance. He dragged his terrified wife into their Hopland house, barricades her and himself inside, opened the gas lines, struck a match. The couple’s neighbors broke into the barricaded house and dragged the couple out side. Fortunately for all involved, the Hopland Volunteer Fire Department, gathered for a clebratory event just down the road, was on-scene faster than they otherwise would have been. They adminstered to Mrs. Chiriboga as Mr. C fled the scene. He was later arrested mulling his non-existent options at Sea Ranch, and last week he pled to attempted first degree murder.

Since he was booked into jail Mr. C has let his hair and beard grow out to where he now resembles those portraits of the blue-eyed Jesus you see in so many protestant churches. We’ll never know why the guy was bent on double suicide because he pled out. But the booking records show arson, corporal injury to a spouse, battery and the ubiquitous terrorist threat — the full monte domestic freakout.

 

Judge Henderson said to the defendant, “Do you understand that if you enter this plea the court could sentence you to life in prison without the possibility of parole?”

“Yes, sir.”

Mr. Chiriboga’s lawyer, Public Defender Linda Thompson, said, “There’s a possibility of restitution, and I’m assisting with the matter in the family court. He’s in the process of signing over the house.”

Henderson said, “The court will impose restitution but wait until the family court matter is resolved.”

"We are working with the son," Thompson said, "to liquidate all his personal property. He knows he’d have to serve the seven years before there would be any possibility of parole. It’s expected that the criminal protective order will stay in place, and I’ve advised him not to have any contact with his soon-to-be ex-wife.”

Sound advice there, Linda. Mrs. Chiriboga's probably just dying to hear from her guy.

Deputy DA Shannon Cox chipped in, “If he qualifies for parole it will be for five years. And I’d like the Harvey waiver explained to the defendant.”

The Harvey waiver means that the dismissed counts can be brought up at the time of sentencing to make sure the sentence is more severe.

Thompson said, “We intend to address that at the time of sentencing. I had advised him to plead No Contest [as a precaution against civil suits], but he’s going to say ‘guilty’ as per my advice that this is part of the People’s stance if he wants to start serving the seven years-to-life offer.”

Henderson said, “How, then, Mr. Chiriboga, do you plead to the charge of attempted first degree murder on September 4th, 2010?”

“Guilty, your honor.”

Sentencing was set for September 30th.

Deputy DA Cox asked that Mr. Chiriboga be held without bail until that time and Judge Henderson said, “That’ll be the order.”

On Friday, Omar Martinez pled to the same charge as Mr. C. He too had tried to kill his wife. He stabbed the mother of his child four times in the neck and chest and shoulder blades while she was holding their baby, so he was also pleading to child endangerment.

Visiting Judge William Lamb said, “It’s my understanding that this sentence was stipulated to because of the lack of any criminal record on the part of the defendant.”

Ms. Cox for the prosecution: “I’m not necessarily in disagreement, but I am inclined to ask that the two charges run consecutively. The victim is here in court, very fearful, and would like to put all this behind her. The People would submit that count two is child abuse. The victim was holding the baby and the defendant was using a knife.”

During the attack the mother had dropped the baby on a concrete surface.

Judge Lamb said, “I wasn’t aware she was holding the child in her arms. I thought that children were merely present in the room.”

In the former DA’s administration it was common to add on charges like “child endangerment,” “false imprisonment” and “terrorist threat” if it could be shown that somebody had told a child, “Go to your room while I kill your mother and stay there or else!” So it’s easy to see how the judge got the mistaken impression that threats to the child’s safety were being exaggerated.

Ms. Cox said she’d like to see the defendant serve one year and four months for child endangerment in addition to the seven years.

Now that he more fully understood the situation, Judge Lamb was inclined to impose the added time.

Martinez was being assisted by the court interpreter, Timothy Baird. He wanted to say something: “I thought I was only going to have to serve the seven years and the other one year and four months would run at the same time.”

This was clearly a guy who thought stabbing his wife while she was holding an infant was about as serious as a parking ticket.

Judge Lamb said, “After reviewing the probation report the people wish to argue a sentence a little more severe. The plea was taken to an amended charge, and if you were to withdraw the plea the people would proceed to trial, and be asking for even more time.”

The defendant said he understood.

But an agitated Public Defender Linda Thompson suddenly shouted, “I don’t think this is fair, your honor!”

There's gossip around the Courthouse that Thompson's mental health, never robust, is deteriorating. Her voice had risen to a startling shriek. Judge Lamb seemed startled by this outburst. He gazed open-mouthed at the Public Defender.

Thompson, apparently aware she'd veered off the rails, struggled to get herself back onto the tracks of passable functioning.

“I find it difficult to believe, heh heh…” Thompson chuckled into her fist, “…too assume that the fact that she was holding the child was not discussed — that Ms. Cox would not have brought it to your attention. Well! If we have to withdraw the plea, well, then we’ll just have to, er ah uh…”

Ms. Cox was deep in the gallery with the victim and an advocate from the Victim-Witness office. She said, “I’ve been talking to the victim, your honor, and she just wants to put this behind her.”

The recommendation from probation was eight years and four months, but if it could be concluded today, so much the better, and let the extra year and a third run concurrently.

Lamb said, “The court is willing to follow the recommendation of imposing the mid-term of seven years for attempted murder without premeditation or deliberation, and the one year and four months for child endangerment will run concurrently. In addition, there will be restitution in the amount of $5,000 for wounds received by the mother and child.”

Another eerie, indignant shriek erupted from the Public Defender.

“That’s too much, your honor! Based on the defendant’s ability to pay it should only be $1,400!”

Judge Lamb again turned to Ms Cox.

She said perfunctorily, “The People submit.”

Judge Lamb said, “Restitution will be reserved in the amount of $1,400 in medical costs due to the wounds suffered by the victim and child.”

Interpreter Tim Baird, standing with Omar Martinez, said, “He’d like to say something, your honor.”

“Very well,” Lamb said.

Baird spoke for Martinez: “I’d like to ask forgiveness to my wife for this regrettable act.”

Judge Lamb said, “Thank you, Mr. Martinez. Your remorse is appropriate.”

Appropriate! There's that word! You can tell Lamb, a visiting judge, is now a full Mendo guy where that foul adjective applies to everything from veggie burgers to murder.

As if a man who flips out and nearly kills his wife needs to be told that his rote remorse is "appropriate."

Mr. Ryan Silva was up next, he’s the guy accused of chasing a girl down Main Street in Potter Valley with a flaming Molotov cocktail. The girl apparently got away so in lieu of Silva allegedly firebombed the girl’s car which was conveniently parked at her father’s house on the same street.

Mr. Silva and his lawyer from the public defender’s office, Dan Haehl, were in court to confirm the date for a preliminary hearing. Haehl said he hadn’t seen any evidence that there ever actually was a Molotov cocktail.

“There’s all this stuff in the police report about a propane tank, and frankly, your honor, I just don’t see it.”

For a fact it wouldn't be easy to run down the street chasing your girl friend with a propane tank, especially one in flames.

Judge Lamb said, “It’s a general term [Molotov cocktail], counsel. “The DA is ready to confirm, so unless you can point to some absence of discovery—”

“I didn’t see anywhere in the report where anyone saw my client throw a lighted object into the car.”

Judge Lamb said, “That is for the trier of fact to decide at the preliminary hearing, which is set to go forward July 17th at 1:30.”

Public Defender Linda Thompson came over and spoke some words of encouragement to Deputy Dan, the oldest lawyer in her office at 64 and, by the way, a descendant of the pioneer Mendo family after whom Haehl Grade south of Yorkville is named.

“We’ll confirm,” Haehl grumbled.

“Thank you,” Judge Lamb said brightly. “We’ll adjourn, then, until Monday.”

Haehl later said to me, “Which public defender are you going to trash next week?”

Sigh.

Reporting what's said and done in open court is "trashing" public defenders.

Haehl said he was coming over to Boonville for Artwalk. I had a clean hanky for him to cry in but I didn't see him.

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