Lethal Lives

by Bruce McEwen, December 16, 2009

Jail

More and more inmates are trying to complain directly to the judges about conditions at the Mendocino County Jail. The judges tell the prisoners to go through prescribed channels, to get their complaints addressed at the jail, and then, if the problems continue, have their lawyers file the appropriate forms to notify the Sheriff’s Department of the alleged abuses and have their complaints heard in court.

Nobody likes being in jail, and people who tend to be in jail a lot like it least. But most of the complaints come from people with mental health issues, people who are in jail because their behavior gets them a ticket to Low Gap because there are no mental health facilities for them.

Mistreatment of inmates is rare and when it occurs, as it did recently when a jailer “felt up” a comely woman being discharged, the jailer was immediately fired.

Last week a 50 year old inmate named Haley died at the jail for reasons that are still under investigation. A couple of weeks earlier a 31-year old “transient” named Beck committed suicide while in custody. Preliminarily, Haley seems to have been drunk, got in a fight with another drunk on the railroad tracks that run through Ukiah where, in lieu of a train system, the tracks serve as a kind of homeless camp. Haley had not enjoyed robust physical health prior to his arrest.

Another inmate, Monica Shears, pleaded last week with Judge David Nelson to send her to a mental hospital. “I’m not getting treated right at the jail,” she said. “They don’t give me my medication. I’d rather go back to prison than back to that jail!”

Ms. Shears, a large black woman who is obviously deranged, was on parole but had been arrested for carrying a concealed weapon described in court as a “dagger.” Ms. Shears said she’d bought the knife to carve her Thanksgiving turkey, not citizens, and that it had been in her pocketbook since then. But Deputy DA Steve Jackson said Ms. Shears had told police she was carrying it for “protection.”

“That’s a lie!” Shears exclaimed.

Ms. Shears was assigned to Public Defender Linda Thompson. Thompson told the court she would “get in touch with Dr. Rossof [a county psychiatrist who works for Mental Health] and see what her scoop is.”

Ms. Shears' scoop is hardly news. The scoop is that lots of crazy people are housed at the County Jail where, because jail is not a mental health facility, crazy people stay crazy or get crazier.

Ms. Shears emitted a low baleful whine and began pacing anxiously at the prospect of going back to the jail. Her guard stood apparently in anticipation of the defendant going all the way off, but Ms. Shears sat back down where her whimpers became sobs.

If jail isn't good for people in precarious mental health, it is warm and dry and the food is pretty good with fresh bread daily by bakers trained by Schat’s. Out on the streets there are no guarantees, and even in rural Mendocino County your chances of getting killed or seriously hurt are on the rise. Take for instance.....

Mr. Noble Moore who pleaded out to a meth-induced road rage incident during which he pulled a knife and threatened two shoppers on their way into Friedman Brothers, having left home unaware that their trip to a Ukiah hardware emporium could be life threatening. Mr. Moore, apparently deep into amphetamine psychosis whose last stage is acute paranoia, felt the two shoppers had been following him too closely. To keep the shoppers off his rear bumper, where he perceived them to be, Moore said he would kill them.

“There was no actual physical contact,” Moore's lawyer said. “He was mostly verbalizing.”

Mostly.

Moore was also waving a knife at the shoppers like he was going to cut them up with it.

“Verbalizing” with a knife for emphasis got Moore two years probation and 50 hours of community service.

A trial for First Degree Attempted Murder in the victim’s home started Monday but it was soon aborted when an argument among potential jurors about the defendant’s tattoos erupted. Having been advised by Judge Richard Henderson not to discuss the case the jurors were discussing it. When the defendant reappears he will wear a turtleneck sweater and ski mask to make himself look less threatening to jurors who associate tats with criminality.

It’s difficult to keep track of all the Attempted First Degree Murder cases going through the local courts these days, but without question only phenomenal emergency medical procedures have kept many of these cases from Murder One status. Lots of Mendo people are getting sliced, diced and shot but they're surviving.

A child molester named Sean Robey agreed to three counts out of the 33 counts of sex with a minor he'd been charged with while prosecutor Steve Jackson and defense attorney David Eyster agreed that Robey would get 15 years and eight months in state prison for the three counts selected, one of which involved oral copulation with child under age 14. Mr. Robey had been preying on the child since 2005. At least one of the counts Robey plead to constituted a strike, but Eyster wanted it noted for the record that no violence or intimidation had been involved.

Is this kid victim prematurely depraved? one wondered.

In the case of young Cory Scarioni, a drunk driver from the Manchester rez, Public Defender Linda Thompson begged for understanding. “He’s never been given a chance to grieve over his little brother’s death,” she said.

“He’s a worthy human being who knows he can never take another drink — not even a drop.” Thompson then expatiated on the baleful effects of alcohol on Native Americans and said, “What happened when he was 14 needs to be addressed. His older brother suffered brain injuries but was released in 10 days whereas my client was in and out of the hospital for almost a year. His brother survived and maybe that’s telling us something.”

Maybe?

Implicit in all this were prior disasters involving alcohol and automobiles.

Judge Brown wasn’t persuaded.

The judge asked why probation hadn’t recommended execution of the prison sentence already hanging over Corey’s head. The probation officer, Tim King, said he’d spent hours interviewing the defendant and found that although Corey was only 20 years old he already felt he was a failure. King said he'd struggled with what to recommend and concluded that prison would be the worst thing for the kid.

“He’s young, your honor,” King said. “Young people make mistakes.”

The judge asked if any of his family were present. In fact Scarioni's brother was present, but Ms. Thompson explained that the family had no money for the trip from Manchester to the County Courthouse in Ukiah. They struggle, Thompson said, with the thought that they might lose another son. “There has not been a lot of assistance from the tribe,” the Public Defender added. “Some of these tribes just won’t do anything to help.”

“This is difficult,” Judge Brown said, addressing Cory directly. “The incident when you were younger was quite serious, and here we are again in very a similar situation. And then, in custody, you end up with this weapon in jail. It raises questions in the court’s mind about your ability to be successful. Then again, there are a lot of people here working to give you another chance. If you were older, there is no doubt you would be going to prison. Still, I need more time to read these letters and reports again. We’ll come back in a week and I’ll have my decision.”

* * *

A few weeks ago I asked Public Defender Linda Thompson for an informal little interview. Thompson said she hadn’t had very good luck with the press. She was wary. I told her this would be a chance to express her views on issues where she may have been misunderstood. Fine, she said, check back with me on Monday and I’ll give you a date. Just like in court, I thought, she needs a date to set a date.

By Monday Thompson had changed her mind. There would be no interview.

Would she consider answering some questions if I wrote them down so she could consider them at her leisure?

She didn’t know; she’d have to see the questions first. I gave her the questions and she said she’d have her people go to work on them and told me to come back again on Friday.

On Friday, her people were putting up Christmas decorations in the office, and I was told to come back on Tuesday. Thompson said she was interested in the win/loss ratios I'd asked about and would have her people get all the stats analyzed for me.

On Wednesday I finally got the answers, sort of. Thompson didn’t let me enter the building. She unlocked the door and came halfway out onto the sidewalk to give me the envelope with a single sheet of paper. I felt like a stage door Johnny begging a Broadway star for an autograph.

AVA: Does the Public Defender’s office have any role in trying get seized assets returned?

PD: The Public Defender's office does not represent individuals who also have asset forfeiture proceedings pending. Those are civil matters and not within the purview of this office. As for other property/items seized (for example as a result of the execution of a search warrant), we will file motions on behalf of our clients to get those returned.

AVA: DA Lintott told the Supervisors during the budget hearings that the Public Defender, Alternate Public Defender and private defense attorneys file a lot of motions (which she implied were frivolous) which not only busts the DA’s budget but also drags cases out for too long.

PD: It is true that in many, if not most, marijuana cases motions are filed. I.e., Mower motions, 1538.5 motions to suppress, etc. It is necessary to litigate numerous issues in marijuana cases which often involve different agencies, including federal and state law enforcement authorities. I don't know of any good defense attorney who would knowingly file an unwarranted or frivolous motion. However, marijuana cases are typically replete with many legal issues that must be addressed prior to or during trial. They are time-consuming cases, often involving several named defendants, many lawyers, and court time.

AVA: We understand that the turnover rate in the Public Defender’s office is very high.

PD: : It may have been true in the past that there was a high turnover in the office of the Public Defender. However, that is not the case at the present time, nor in the recent past. The good majority of the attorneys in this office have been here no less than two years and the senior attorneys have been here an average of 3-5 years, and myself, I have been here since 1998 when Jeff Thoma hired me. I am pleased that the office has stability at this juncture and devoted attorneys who want to be here and perform this job.

AVA: What is the win/loss ratio of marijuana cases that go to trial? Under the definition that any conviction at trial for charges less than what the DA brought is a loss (also including not-guilty), what is the DA’s overall trial win rate (excluding pleas)? How many marijuana cases does the Public Defender currently have? Does the DA’s office acknowledge medical defenses when the defendant makes them, or are they ignored (under DA Nerli’s argument that there’s no such thing as medical marijuana)?

PD: As for the questions involving specific statistics relating to marijuana cases, I do not have that information available at this time. As for whether or not the District Attorney appears to concede that there are possible medical need defenses, those do not seem to be accepted as viable defenses by the District Attorney and as such must be litigated. Win/loss ratios are a matter of interpretation and context. And the plea bargains that are struck should be considered in evaluating wins/losses in that most plea bargains involve disposing of cases on the basis of pleas which involve settling matters for what the District Attorney could potentially prove at trial versus what they have charged the defendant with.

AVA: We understand the Tai Abreu appeal went absolutely nowhere. What made you think there was any legitimate Miranda appeal when the two co-defendants were urged to cop pleas with lesser sentences and Abreu had no defense at trial under the accessory to murder rule? Was Abreu aware of the accessory to murder rule and the consequences if he went to trial?

PD: I will not answer any questions from the AVA with respect to the Abreu case as there will never be a fair, unbiased discussion of the matter.

AVA: Have you, as an openly gay woman, encountered much homophobia in the day to day performance of your duties?

PD: I have encountered no difficulties in this county as a result of my orientation.

* * *

CORRECTION: Last week there was a misquote in the piece about the homeless in Ukiah. The Plowshares facility does in fact prepare hot meals for the homeless. What I meant to say was that the various churches in the area give the homeless sack lunches, usually in front of the Social Services Building in the 700 block of South State Street.

* * *

NOTE: Bruce Anderson says he wrote One Murder, Four Deaths, a lengthy account of how three Fort Bragg youths, among them a 19-year-old named Tai Abreu, back in 2001, lured a gay Los Angeles man named Donald Perez to Fort Bragg, where Abreu and two associates robbed and killed Perez. Ms. Thompson represented Abreu with a single argument: Abreu hadn't been properly advised of his rights to an attorney or to remain silent before he confessed to his involvement in the crime. Rather than have Abreu plead to second degree murder, the deal offered by the DA, Thompson took her dubious Miranda defense of Abreu to a jury and, after a grotesque one-day event during which Thompson called no witnesses for Abreu and agreed with the prosecution that Abreu was a very bad person, Abreu was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Ever. Buried alive at 19. Abreu's confederates quickly pled out and, in all likelihood, will return to Fort Bragg still in early middle age after twenty years or so in prison. “I called Thompson for her version of events at least three times,” Anderson says, “but she refused to talk to me. I think some very odd kind of vanity made her think she somehow had a case, but she killed Abreu as dead as Abreu and the two other guys killed Donald Perez.”

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