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by Bruce McEwen, March 12, 2014
“The duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict.” — American Bar Association, Criminal Justice Standards.
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Deputy Clint Wyant made his Boonville grandfather proud last month when he nabbed an elusive thief named Jack Owsley, a Santa Rosa resident who appeared to be staying in Willits while he fleeced an address west of town.
Owsley had been burglarizing the same residence on Highway 20 near the Smith Ranch for quite some time, reportedly taking thousands of dollars worth of property from the isolated household to support his meth habit. Owsley was a clever burglar. Every time Deputy Wyant got notice that there was mischief afoot in the area, Owsley was gone by the time the Deputy got out there.
But Owsley came back one too many times.
The weather being dry and the thief being fair-weather sly, these thefts could have gone unsolved for a long time. But the drought finally broke. And Owsley got stuck in the mud.
The case was set for a prelim exam to see if there was enough evidence to hold Owsley for trial. But Owsley’s defense, led by Andrew Higgins of the Office of the Public Defender’s Office, would rather play Let's Make A Deal.
The offer was four years in prison with a promise of no prison time at the outset, which is to say Owsley would only go to the Big House if he couldn’t survive a five-year term on probation. So the prelim didn’t go forward and we were deprived of many of the details.
Deputy Wyant, however, was able to testify that when he finally caught up with Owsley, he saw him open the door to his vehicle's gas tank to stash a bag of white crystalline powder in it. Wyant quickly cuffed Owsley and Owsley was charged with possession of meth and grand theft.
The Owsley defense was given a few weeks to work out the details of the plea deal, which certainly seems generous.
That’s when I got a message that there was an important case underway up in the juvenile court.
It seems the District Attorney tried to pull a fast one on a kid who had been locked up since he was 14, and now, seven years later, at 21, the kid was fresh out.
Marcos Escareno was arrested in 2007 for the murder of a South Coast drug dealer name Enoch Cruz. Escareno would later say that Cruz had been abusing Escareno's sister. When the 14-year old had “confessed” to shooting Cruz, he'd been surrounded by a platoon of cops and was so drunk he couldn’t stand. Based on his dubious confession, former DA Meredith Lintott decided to try Escareno as an adult.
Before the case went to trial in the late Judge Ron Brown’s court, Marcos’s lead lawyer, Tony Serra, took the best deal he could get. In exchange for what’s called a “West plea,” which doesn’t admit guilt but concedes the case would probably end badly for the kid if it went to trial, both sides agreed to the term Marcos eventually served in the California Youth Authority, which is now called the Division of Juvenile Justice.
Fast forward to February, 2014. Escareno has completed his sentence and is out on parole happily back at home with his sister on the Manchester-Point Arena rez. He successfully completed all the required state programs at the Youth Authority. The DA’s office had been notified that Escareno was coming home on parole and didn't object at the time objections are considered.
But DA David Eyster has suddenly filed a motion to vacate Escareno's already-served sentence because he says it was illegal. Eyster wants to send Escareno — who has since changed his last name from Escareno to Diaz — to state prison. While he's at it, maybe Eyster could un-murder Cruz, and everyone could go home happy, Cruz included.
DA Eyster notified defense lawyer Katherine Elliott that he would pursue Escareno in Juvenile Court before Judge Cindee Mayfield. It was all hurry up and hidden, clearly designed to avoid any possible press coverage. Reporters aren't allowed in Juvenile Court and, because Escareno was now going by Marcos Diaz, well, we had a juvenile court hearing for Escareno going under his new surname of Diaz.
But I was alerted by co-defense lawyer Omar Figueroa and got to the courtroom where Judge Mayfield allowed me entry. Ms. Elliott successfully argued for more time to prepare and the matter was reset for March 21st.
When DA Eyster saw that his favorite newspaper would be covering the case, he had his press secretary, Mike Geniella, send a letter to Judge Mayfield, copied to the AVA (and available on our website), explaining why he was going after the kid.
The Escareno letter is a swamp of disputatious legalese quibbling over the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit. Ordinary folks yearn for some sense of reasonableness when they see a kid being singled out for special attention, especially after the kid in question has served the sentence meted out to him by the late Judge Brown.
As of last Friday at five o’clock, Eyster had won another four years as District Attorney, by default. Five o’clock Friday was the filing deadline for anyone disposed to run against the DA. It came and went. No one filed. Complaints about prosecution policies in this context, are futile.
Katherine Elliott, one of three lawyers defending Escareno-Diaz (the other two are Omar Figueroa and Tony Serra), responded to Eyster’s spectacularly arbitrary focus on her client:
“Mr. Escareno was committed to the Youth Authority at the time by Judge Brown with the express approval and agreement of probation and the District Attorney's Office, Meredith Lintott and DDA Brian Newman. So he was sentenced to the Youth Authority. He participated in all the programs. He has done everything he was supposed to do. He was going through rehabilitation and learning anger management, and the rest of it. Then he came up for parole in September. That was noticed to the District Attorney and they did nothing about it. So he successfully paroled at 21 years old to come back here. We were trying to decide if we should put him on adult probation or juvenile supervision. Then last Thursday, Mr. Eyster filed a motion to vacate the sentence, saying it was illegal and he didn’t agree with it. His argument was Mr. Escareno should not have been committed to the Youth Authority. He should have been sent to prison, therefore he should now be sent to prison, because in Mr. Eyster’s opinion, that would be the right thing to do!”
At this point in our conversation, Ms. Elliott laughed at the absurdity of it all. But I had been in court and never heard Eyster say why it would be “the right thing to do.” And that is what I searched for in his letter to Judge Mayfield, any possible justification of "the right thing to do." Pouncing almost a decade later to reverse both a sentence and a successful completion of that sentence is the right thing to do?
People complain that Eyster has monarchical tendencies, but this weird pursuit of Escareno-Diaz is positively Henry the VIII.
“So now I have to file a response,” Elliott resumed, “saying that I don’t think it was illegal. But let’s just say it was illegal. The question is, should we be able to do anything about it, now? We relied on the prosecutors and probation and the judge at the time, and Marcos did everything he was supposed to do. Now he has been released. What do we gain by sending him to prison?”
On the subject of contradictory prosecution policies, how about the case of Daniel Escamilla? He's the 6'4" 340-pound psycho who, dressed as a woman and fueled by crank and alcohol, recently tried to dismember the medical team at the Ukiah emergency room. Dr. Gary Fausone, who was severely bitten during Escamilla's ER rampage, wrote a letter to the court saying that he and the members of his staff were very lucky they weren't killed.
The details of the attack did not emerge in court, but it was so bad that even Escamilla’s lawyer, Public Defender Linda Thompson, seemed wary of her client.
“When I read Dr. Fausoni’s report, I thought, That’s it. You are definitely going to prison. After all the work everyone has done for you, you decided to go out drinking and using meth again. And I have heard from my sources at the jail that you are not the least bit remorseful, and that you think this will fulfill your hopes of being sent to Chowchilla, but you are wrong about that; you will be going to San Quentin; and, trust me, you do not want to go there. As far as that goes, the only reason you are not going there today is because Ms. Larson [prosecutor Deputy DA Heidi Larson] knows you and your family.”
Thompson’s tongue lashing went on for quite some time, then Ms. Larson lit into defendant Escamilla, saying, “I sent your father to prison and the only reason I am not sending you is because we know what we’ll get back. (An even bigger psycho, presumably.) But do not think for one minute that if you violate any of the terms of this grant of probation that you will not go there — and no, you will not be going to Chowchilla.”
The lawyers then got into a discussion about restitution for the damage and injuries Escamilla caused at the emergency room. Thompson chuckled at the minimal charge of $2900, adding that she was certain the cost was actually well over $20,000.
Judge Ann Moorman then read the letter from Dr. Fausoni which said, in essence, that he knew Escamilla would be placed on probation, and that he wanted it put down as a term of the probation order that if Escamilla caused another similar incident of verbal and physical abuse at the emergency room, it would be a violation of probation, and he would go directly to prison.
“You can count on it,” Judge Moorman told Escamilla. “I will not cut you one shred of slack. And whatever you are wishing for, forget it, because you will not be going to Chowchilla. You will go straight to San Quentin for five years and four months. You will serve two years and four months in custody, then the remainder of three years on mandatory supervision. The terms are no alcohol and no drugs — one dirty test and I’ll send you back for the three years in custody, as well. I’m also imposing six months in a residential treatment program.”
Excuse us for wondering why this guy gets to go home but the DA wants to send Escareno-Diaz to San Quentin.