Judge Nelson’s Courtroom
by Bruce McEwen, February 19, 2014
The Honorable David Nelson is about the best judge any reasonable criminal can hope for. And for those of us who obey the laws with at least some regularity, we, too, can be thankful for Judge Nelson, as well. Nelson runs his new department, which handles the main criminal calendar, with easy confidence, enviable skill and decorous poise in some challenging circumstances. His Honor’s efficient aplomb saves the taxpayers a lot of money. As modern society unravels, and more and more people unable to fully function in the consumer sweepstakes are run through the justice system, you want a guy sorting things out who can be fair while saving the state and local government a little money in the process. Locking up everyone who runs afoul of the law and you wind up with a society that maintains more people behind bars than any other country in the world except, perhaps, China. And if the guy doing the sorting out does so with respect for everyone concerned — well, you've got a good judge.
The word “gentleman” applies to all adult males, as in, “Bring the guilty gentleman, er, I mean bring the gentleman in, Bailiff.” Or, “Then the gentleman struck the other inebriated gentleman and a fight ensued…”
There’s no acceptable equivalent for women, as the term “lady” is laden with too much sexist baggage for Mendocino progressives. Women are usually referred to as Ms. It sometimes shocks infrequent visitors to observe an obviously debauched person, inevitably a man, who is clearly capable of everything from murder to cannibalism, referred to as a gentleman. The word has lost much, if not all, of its traditional connotations. Sort of like “sir” — as in, “Step out of the car please, sir,” as if the slobbering drunk behind the wheel is Sir Walter Raleigh.
But “gentleman” applied to Judge Nelson, is a good fit.
The judge conducts himself with a graciousness that is largely absent among the professionals plying the Mendocino County Courthouse. They may wear the clothes suggestive of fine sensibilities but the only difference between them and most defendants is a law degree.
My critics have noted that I make too much fuss over sartorial practices of the officers of the courts, and that I represent a kind of reactionary wistfulness for the days when Americans cared about their appearances. The good people of Mendocino (where even the DA wears Grateful Dead neckties), in their faux progressive attitudes, are trying to shake free of oppressive superficialities such as dress, exchanging their suits for the even more absurd superficialities of formal address.
For several years now, Judge Nelson has toiled in the obscurity of the juvenile and family courts, where reporters are never allowed to enter “to protect the privacy and interests of the child.” Of course huge crimes against those same children go unnoticed.
So it was with some anticipation that I visited Judge Nelson's new Criminal Department where alleged criminals are arraigned up on the top floor of the old structure. If these walls could talk! As late as the middle 1960s the County Jail was situated on the top floor, but with the society beginning its long free fall about that time, there were simply too many defendants to keep upstairs.
It was Valentine’s Day. Cupid was nowhere to be seen, love was not in the air.
A gentleman named Mr. Gaspar Gomez was brought in. He sat sprawled contemptuously in the dock like an unruly child who has had his ice cream cone taken away. The young man looked bored and insolent. Bailiff Art Barkeley tapped on the judge’s door to let him know the defendant was present. Judge Nelson ascended the bench and called Gomez by his full name. Mr. Gomez sighed expansively, with an air of exasperation, laid his head back on the chair, and gazed off at an empty corner, sneering.
It occurred to me that he was nuts.
The judge said, “Mr. Gomez, would you stand up, please?”
Gomez seemed not to have heard.
“Does Mr. Gomez need an interpreter?” Nelson wondered aloud.
“No, the gentleman speaks good English, your honor,” the corrections officer said, moving with unexpected speed toward Gomez, who suddenly came to life and jumped to his feet.
“Thank you, Mr. Gomez. I have three separate files regarding allegations against you today. There is one for failure to appear on a signed promise to appear; one for interference with a business — trespassing; and a violation of your probation on a burglary conviction, which indicates you were arrested on a warrant; and a failure to stay away from Tangents. How do you want to proceed?”
Gomez glowered at the judge.
“Do you want time to get a lawyer?”
Gomes continued to glower.
“Can you afford a lawyer?”
“Do you want me to appoint a lawyer for you?”
“Sure. Appoint one.”
“Ms. Hoagland,” Nelson said, turning to the defense table where Jessica Hoagland of the Office of the Public Defender was seated, “I’m appointing the Public Defender in this case.”
Ms. Hoagland stood and went up to the bench. Nelson handed her a sheaf of paper. She said, “Jessica Hoagland for Mr. Gomez. I’ll acknowledge receipt of a copy of the complaint, and the petition to revoke probation.”
“Heidi Larson for the People, your honor. At this time we would offer Mr. Gomez 30 days for the trespassing charge, and 90 days for the violation of probation, for a total of 120 days.”
“Did you hear that?” Ms. Hoagland asked her new client.
Gomez snorted contemptuously.
“Can I have just a moment with my client, your honor?”
“Yes, Ms. Hoagland. Take all the time you need.”
“Are you alright?” Hoagland asked Gomez.
Gomez answered in a hiss. After a few more whispers, Ms. Hoagland asked Ms. Larson, “Would this be a terminal sentence?”
“No,” Larson said. “He would have to remain on probation. And he has got to stay away from Tangents.”
I couldn’t hear what was being said so I stole closer, there being no one else in the courtroom gallery, and listened in.
“What’s going on at Tangents that’s causing you so much trouble?”
“Wull, they’ve got all this really neat stuff.”
“Wull, you know, lots of things.”
“No, I don’t know. Tell me.”
“Wull, things like whirligigs and finimbruns.”
“What are finimbruns?”
“They’re these really neat things.”
“Okay. I see. What else?”
“Gew-gaws and whatnot.”
“Wull, there’s oodles and scads of baubles and bibelots and tons and tons of Bangers and Whangers and Clangers. Then they’ve got all these gimcracks, wisecracks, flip-flops, gag-bags, Funny-Bunnies, Squawk-Boxes, Clap-Traps, Piddle-Puddle-Paddles, fur balls, hat bills, Teensy-Weensy Tse-Tse Fly Testicles, Melodious Meadowlark’s Itineraries and, lemme see… oh, yeah, there’s lots of brightly colored cloth and very cleverly made tinsel-type things that rattle, fizzle, sparkle, tinkle, pop, tickle, buzz, squirt, snap and go poof. I don’t know how anybody can keep away from such a shop, do you, Ms. Hoagland?”
Like All That Good Stuff in Boonville, Fort Bragg’s Tangents is a very popular store. But was it my imagination, or was Gomez putting us on? His expression changed as he catalogued the items, sometimes leering, other times giggling, but always with the fascination of a child at Disneyland.
Apparently, the guy had burgled the store and lifted some of the merchandise.
Hoagland asked, “Are you sure you are all right? Do you want to go to the [shrink] doctor?”
“No! I’m fine!”
“Your honor, at this point, I’m a wee bit concerned about if he knows what’s going on here today.”
“I’m fine. I know what’s going on!” Gomez insisted.
“I’m not ready to make a declaration about his competency, your honor; not at this point, but if we could put this over for a week, maybe, and let him out on his own recognizance...”
“He has a federal Immigration detainer,” the corrections officer volunteered.
“I wouldn’t be releasing him anyway, because of the failure to appear,” Nelson noted. “We’ll bring him back next Tuesday for further proceedings. Mr. Gomez, that will give you time to think about your situation and consider the People’s offer. We’ll see you back here on Tuesday, then.”
After the officers had escorted Gomez out the door and back to the jail a mile and a half north of the courthouse, Ms. Hoagland sighed at the injustice of a system that would make a nice young gentleman like Mr. Gomez spend Valentine’s Day incarcerated. Ms. Hoagland lives in Willits. She came to work at the Ukiah courthouse after the county closed the Willits court. She's been blessed with a daughter, a 10 year old who is not a liberal like mom. She brought the kid to court one day and soon came to regret it when the little girl was heard to say, “These people are lucky they even get a lawyer. They sure as heck don’t deserve one!”
Ms. Hoagland’s nickname is Fifteen Cents; it comes from the prosecutors as a reference to her style of deal making, which is to say she nickels-and-dimes them into giving up some small-change concessions to her inevitably guilty clients, lightening their loads just a little. The public defender is a very good person.
A couple of women appeared and, right on their heels, a gentleman not in custody. This fellow was dressed in a raggedy T-shirt, soiled jeans and sneakers. His ash-blond hair was done in dreadlocks and he had a stubble of beard. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” he sang to the in-custody women, in defiance of the notices posted everywhere that speaking to prisoners is forbidden by the penal code. Bailiff Barkeley confronted the man and whispered a terse warning.
Nelson called one of the women, “Joni Lorraine Dearing. Ms. Dearing, there’s a petition on file to revoke your grant of community supervision. Would you like a lawyer to represent you in this matter?”
“Yes, I would, but I can’t afford one, your honor.”
“I’ll appoint the Public Defender in that case.”
Ms. Hoagland had another customer!
Soon, Ms. Hoagland was saying, “Ms. Dearing is prepared to admit she failed to report to probation when she was released. I understand the challenge it causes the system when someone fails to report in a timely fashion, but I think the 180 days in jail is too stringent for such a failure and would ask the court to meet me in the middle somewhere… to not give her the 180, but still show her that failing to report is not acceptable. Perhaps 120 days would be better?”
Nelson turned to Ms. Larson: “People’s position?”
“I have no objection to the 120 days, your honor.”
Nelson then turned to the Probation Officer: “Mr. Locatelli?”
“She also refused to take the urine analysis test, your honor,” Locatelli said.
“I see," Judge Nelson said. "If you will admit the charge, I’ll only give you the 120 days, Ms. Dearing, but you must understand you can’t refuse the test and you must report to probation as soon as you get out. Do you understand?”
She said she did. Nelson called “Brittany Pinola…”
The shrill, silly jingle of Rasta Man's cellphone went off even though there are notices everywhere that the annoying gizmos are forbidden in the courtrooms. The bailiff got up to escort the “gentleman” out, but couldn’t catch him, and he danced a jeering little jig out the door, laughing all the way.
“Ms. Pinola, there is a complaint on file charging you with vandalism; specifically, with breaking the window of a car belonging to Anna Marin.”
According to a report from the Ukiah Police Department: “On February 10th at about 5:40pm, Ukiah Police responded to a residence in the 100 block of Rupe Street for a reported vandalism. Officers learned the victim was inside and observed 18 year old Brittany Ann Pinola and 19 year old Gabriella Darlene Pinola using a chair and a baseball bat to break the windows of the victim’s vehicle. The victim believed the suspects were angry and jealous of a shared relationship with a subject currently incarcerated in prison. On February 11th the suspects were contacted and agreed to come to the Ukiah Police Department and provide a statement. At about 2:45pm both suspects were interviewed and initially denied involvement, but eventually partially admitted culpability. Brittany and Gabriella Pinola were arrested for vandalism and criminal conspiracy.”
Apparently, the object of Brittany and Gabriella's ire was a third female somehow involved with an incarcerated lothario.
“Would you like me to appoint the Public Defender?” Judge Nelson asked.
Hoagland asked the judge to release Pinola on her own recognizance and link the case up with the co-defendant, Gabriella Pinola, who had signed a promise to appear on March 14th.
Larson said, “That’s fine, but we want a stay-away order for Anna Marin and a search and seizure clause.”
Nelson said, “Alright, that’ll be the order.”
The car vandals departed and another interlude ensued while we waited for the next prisoner, er gentleman, who required two corrections officers to transport him. There is the occasional tough guy the cops have to muscle up for. Or think they have to muscle up for. Deputy Orell Massey, an ex-Marine, is the equal of most tough guys. He's a tall, fit man who, well, let's just say he can bring a huge amount of instant force to bear. Massey was the extra officer who had volunteered to help with the transport.
The judge appeared and called, “Daniel Jason Taylor.”
Taylor snapped smartly to attention and said, “Good morning, your honor!”
Nelson smiled appreciatively, perhaps ironically, at Taylor's sprightly greeting. Say what you will about this country's defendant class, they tend heavily to irrepressible.
“Mr. Taylor, there is a petition on file alleging you are in violation of your community supervision, basically, for failure to report when you were released. Would you like a lawyer?”
“You wish to handle this yourself?”
“Well, the recommendation is for 180 days, with credit for seven days already served.”
“Your honor, my mom is about to have a baby and I would like to be out by next month because she’ll need my help around the house. My sister is not going to be there, so can I get out by then? It is my first time not reporting…”
Larson said, “He has never checked in since he was released.”
“I was never told where to report, sir.”
“I’m inclined to follow the recommendation,” Nelson said.
“I’ll take the attorney, then,” Taylor said.
Public defender Hoagland and prosecutor Heidi Larson quickly arrived at a compromise solution for the Taylor problem. Hoagland smiled brightly and said, “We may have this resolved, your honor.”
“Yes, yes,” Larson sighed. “We’ll go along with the 120 days, in the interest of justice, since this was his first violation.”
It would amount to about 54 days off the time inside.
Nelson asked, “Do you accept the offer, Mr. Taylor?”
“Alright, that’ll be the order.”
As the courtroom cleared out Hoagland asked, “Do you see now why they call me Fifteen Cents?”
Are you finally going to write about what a good lawyer I am, then?”
“No,” I lied, because she is a good lawyer, much better than the people she represents deserve.
The jury trial for Ivan Sanchez, the Fort Bragg gang guy who has been charged with assaulting his girlfriend, was brief and conclusive: Guilty. A waste of time and money, with a further attempt to terrify the witnesses, who have all begged not to be named. I sat through long portions, but didn’t take notes, as per a request from the prosecution and witness protection. Therefore, nothing further to report, as I refuse to give this punk the satisfaction.