Death Sentences

by Bruce McEwen, August 3, 2011

There’s much speculation about the apparent epidemic of cancer at the County Courthouse. First to be stricken was Judge Ron Brown, who came up through the ranks from the Public Defender’s office to become the County’s senior criminal court judge. After sentencing half a dozen murderers last summer, Brown was handed a death sentence himself: Pancreatic cancer.

Then flamboyant defense attorney, Richard Petersen, was forced by illness to bow out of defending two of the biggest cases of the year this spring — accused Bell Springs killer Phillip Frase and one of the biggest meth busts in the country, that of Ukiah’s Cruz family of Ukiah arrested with more than 50 pounds of methamphetamine. Petersen is fighting off cancer.

One of Mendocino County’s senior private defense attorneys, and certainly among the County’s most able, Jan Cole-Wilson, has been diagnosed with cancer. Cole-Wilson was recently in court to try to sort out the botched defense of Timothy “Coke” Elliott, convicted of killing Sam Billy on the Hopland Rancheria. Now, at the crucial sentencing phase of that long, sad case Cole-Wilson is facing a possible sentence much more severe than that faced by Coke Elliot.

A doctor trumps a judge every time on sentencing day.

There’s the idea floating around the County Courthouse that the current plague has something to do with all the cocaine the young lawyers sniffed back in the day, but by that standard there would be few persons of Mendocino County’s professional classes between the ages of 50 and 75 alive today. Other guesses place the source of the plague on Ukiah’s drinking water. But whatever is causing all the cancer it is getting to the point where every time a lawyer or judge misses a day, everyone wonders if we’ll ever see him again.

The epidemic illness has delayed resolution of many serious cases. Timothy Elliott was supposed to have been sentenced last week, but now his sentencing has been put off indefinitely. Another lawyer will have to be found and brought up to speed on the complicated issues involved in it.

The Cruz trial, which may reveal the source of much of the crank plaguing the Northcoast, was postponed when prosecutor, Katherine Houston called in sick.

About the only thing that did happen last week was the sentencing of long-time drug user Sunny Edwards.

Who is pregnant. And who was found with drugs in jail.

Due to complications associated with Ms. Edwards’ pregnancy, the idea was to keep her out of jail or prison where she ordinarily would have gone if she wasn’t about to become a mother whose pregnancy comes with risks to both mother and child.

So Sunny has been sentenced to five years probation with provisions so strict that no addict with her committed record of hard drug use could possibly complete it successfully — although you’d certainly hope that she can at least stay away from drugs and alcohol while pregnant. But what if she doesn’t? Then we get a pregnant addict in jail or prison, and a new American born behind bars to a double captivity — his mother’s uncontrollable appetites and his dependence on a welfare system more grudging by the day.

DA David Eyster himself took on the Edwards’ matter. He asked for the aggravated term of four years for Sunny’s accumulated drug violations and another two years on the violation of probation, which she was on from a previous dope case. The two years would translate into an additional eight months in prison — total time four years and eight months, with the baby old enough to enter pre-school when his mother walked out the prison gate.

Ms. Edwards’ lawyer, Andrew Wiggins of the Public Defender’s office — togged out in a pink seersucker suit and red bowtie —agreed to the arrangement.

With his bold suit and odd haircut, Wiggins was an arresting sight. In protest of recent salary cuts, he and some of his co-workers had shaved their heads. Wiggins’ mane seems to be struggling to re-seed, and it’s coming back in uneven chunks. Wiggins stood in front of the bench looking pink and scalped while the DA and judge settled the matter.

“I’ve spent quite a lot of time on this case,” Judge Henderson began, looking sternly at the relentless reprobate before him. “Everybody has, Ms. Edwards. You are by law presumptively ineligible for probation, and unless I find unusual circumstances the court must send you to prison. However, the court does find unusual circumstances due to a pregnancy and potential problems shown by the ultra-sound [the ultrasound showed that the baby, a three striker before he draws his first unaided breathe, will begin life with serious birth defects]. The court will place Ms. Edwards on five years probation in the 4375.6 case, possession of drugs in jail… Have you read the report from probation?”

“Yes,” said Sunny Edwards, who indeed seems as chipper as her given name implies.

“I ask because probation is so frustrated with your performance. If you violate the probation at any time again during the next five years you will go straight to prison. I just want you to be aware of that.”

DA Eyster interrupted.

“Part of the bargain, Judge, is that there would be no early termination of the five years and that there would be five years in the violation of probation as well, so that down the road another court will know what the intent was today.”

Meaning that Sunny would be on strict probation for a full five years. No early outs, no deals.

Judge Henderson then asked Tim King of the Probation Office to add up Ms. Edwards’ credits for time served. “She’s served 254 days and as she’ll be released today she will have to report to the Probation Office in Fort Bragg on Monday,” King said.

Henderson told Sunny she had the right to appeal, which must be filed in 60 days, and Sunny Edwards, pregnant and drug addicted, was free.

* * *

Recently appointed State Deputy Attorney Brian Newman, formerly a Mendocino County prosecutor now laboring out of the State Attorney General’s office in Sacramento but working mostly out of Crescent City, was in court to prosecute a local case because DA David Eyster had declared a conflict of interest in a case involving one of Eyster’s former private clients, Ms. Kaylee Hoffman.

It should have been a straightforward matter. But Ms. Hoffman’s new lawyer, Keith Faulder, among the County’s ablest defense attorneys, is a man who knows how to make things difficult for the prosecution. In fact, ot that long ago Faulder was a prosecutor. In this case he was claiming that since Mr. Newman worked in the DA’s office for a few months after Eyster took office that, he, Newman, also had a conflict. Faulder brought a motion to bar Newman — on grounds of having a conflict of interest — from prosecuting the case.

Newman said he had no conflict and that “actually, if there was a conflict, it would be to the defendant’s benefit. But no confidential information has ever been committed to me and I did nothing on this case.”

Faulder contended that since Newman was working in the office when Eyster declared the conflict, Newman, and all the other lawyers in the office, had conflicts. “My problem is,” Faulder explained, “that once a conflict has been found, how does he un-conflict himself? I am making no aspersions on him personally, it’s just that the appearance of that conflict has to be addressed. A conflict was imputed at the time he was in the office. After he leaves that office is there any way for him to un-impute it?”

Judge Ann Moorman said she saw it as an important issue and that she would have to get the transcript, which could take some time, and the conflict pile would take some time to sort out.

“I’m going to order the transcripts and see if there was an actual conflict declared,” Judge Moorman said.

Newman said, “My client is the People and I have no conflict of interest there.”

In other words, it didn’t change his interests whether he was with the DA’s office or the AG’s. Certainly this is true, and even if it weren’t, the benefit would be to Faulder’s client.

Hyper-scrupulousness was in full play, and taxpayers could not be blamed if they saw in it one more example of how even the simplest matter is parlayed into endless complications of the manufactured type.

Here’s a new legal game. I name the defendant, and you guess the charge. Ready?

“Crystal Mills…”

If you guessed meth for sale, you win round one.

(There seems to be a high correlation of Mendocino County women named Crystal, sometimes spelled with a ‘K,’ and the methamphetamine business.)

Ms. Mills was on for sentencing. Probation was recommending she get into a treatment program, in this case the Salvation Army’s Harbor Light program in San Francisco. Ms. Mills had a letter from Johnny Legget the program director and another letter from Victim Witness signed by Cleo Dumont, to whom Ms. Mills owes some restitution. The sisterly letter from Ms. Dumont, who has had recurrent troubles of her own said the restitution could wait until Ms. Mills finished the treatment program, for which she’d be given day-for-day credit on her remaining jail time.

Judge Moorman said, “She won’t be returned to jail if she finishes the program satisfactorily, but it must be at least a 180-day program.”

Deputy DA Ray Killion said if Crystal completed the program he’d reduce the charge to a misdemeanor and keep the felony off her record. Crystal would have to follow it up with three years of successful probation, however.

Crystal’s lawyer, Lewis Finch, assured the court that Crystal would do her best.

Public defenders don’t have to do much these days. Now that Meredith Lintott is gone from the DA’s chair, we rarely see the long list of arbitrary charges and demands for maximum punishments that the defense lawyers had to work to reduce the past four years. This is probably a good thing since all the public attorneys are getting less pay now, not that effort necessarily correlates with pay.

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