by Bruce McEwen, March 4, 2010
Defendant Terry Cohen will have to go to the back of the line, the long line of murder trials backed up at the County Courthouse in Ukiah.
The Laytonville gunslinger is still in Ukiah Valley Medical Center on life support after his third attempt on his own life. Cohen's jury had hung ten to two in favor of conviction and Judge Ron Brown declared a mistrial, but not before he brought the lawyers and the jury back for one more go-round.
Cohen shot Sean Jason Piper numerous times with two handguns, a .357 Ruger and a .45 Kimber. There’s no question about that fact. But Cohen says he shot Sean Jason Piper eleven times in self-defense. Two jurors agreed with him.
“I wish it was still like the old days,” Cohen told the cops at the Laytonville substation just after the shooting, “and they just hung you the next day.”
It seems that Two-Gun Terry, at age 60, is more afraid of prison than death. He's hung himself three times now on prescription chemicals, and he's still hanging in intensive care in the Ukiah hospital from his third attempt on himself.
Judge Brown is a former Mendocino County public defender. He's come to be known as “The Hanging Judge,” by many locals who have appeared before him.
“Judge Nelson’s the best you can hope for; he might let you off easy, but if you get Brown, you’ll hang.”
Not literally, of course, but Brown won't dither over imposing a harsh sentence.
The distinct possibility of a long prison sentence still looms over Cohen’s intensive care bed. He'll have plenty of time to recover from his latest drug overdose before he has to go through the ordeal of a murder trial all over again. Assuming his brain's not fried, and assuming the DA tries him again.
Judge Brown hit the rewind button on Cohen last Wednesday. The jury had hung the week before, but the judge wanted to see if a replay of the closing arguments might bring in a unanimous verdict, might convince the two holdout jurors that Cohen murdered Sean Jason Piper in cold blood.
The two lawyers were even better at presenting their cases this time.
Defense Attorney Katherine Elliott went first. She’s defended accused killers before. Friday, March 5th she'll be back in Judge Brown's court with Marcos Escareno of Point Arena, the kid convicted of shooting a 22-year-old drug dealer to death. In that one Ms. Elliot is co-counsel with Tony Serra, which in the co-counsel business is like Barry Bonds showing up to hit clean-up for your kid's little league team, not that Ms. Elliot isn't perfectly capable all by herself.
Ms. Elliot got Cohen off her first try; she convinced those two jurors that Cohen put eleven bullets in Sean Jason Piper in self-defense. Piper just kept on coming, you see, and Cohen just had to keep on shooting him.
Ms. Elliot's case was simple. She and Cohen said the shooting occurred out of Cohen's desperate struggle against a determined young man who was in the act of invading Terry Cohen's home to rob Terry Cohen and probably put some physical hurt on him. Cohen is much older and in poor health, an invalid of sorts, too, on all kinds of meds for all kinds of ailments.
Ms. Elliot argued that Sean Jason Piper continued to menace Cohen after taking as many as ten gunshots up and down his determined body before Cohen put a final bullet behind Sean Jason Piper's ear. Of course that final bullet in Sean Jason Piper's head could have been the very first bullet he took, but there's no way of telling now.
“The angle of the shots could mean they were both on the floor, that Sean was still coming after Terry.”
Could mean. Sure, anything's possible.
But given all the givens it's more likely that Terry Cohen fired downward on Sean Jason Piper where Sean Jason Piper lay at the foot of the back stairs where a bunch of shell casings were found.
“Well, there’s no accounting for how the shells got there — they could end up anywhere,” the defense attorney said as all the jurors but two said to themselves, “Like hell.”
“Now, in terms of elaborating,” Elliot continued, “the instructions give Terry the right to eject Sean, the right to defend his real or personal property. “We,” she pleaded emphatically, “as homeowners have the right to defend ourselves from intruders. The law presumes Terry felt fear of harm or great bodily injury. This law is to protect the homeowner. If you make a mistake as to why that intruder is in your home, the law is on your side.”
We all make them.
The prosecutor, Deputy DA Scott McMenomey, had been succinct in his first presentation and he was even more to the point this time.
“Terry talks to Sean on the phone. We have the phone records. Then he gets his guns and loads them.”
McMenomey showed a photograph of the ammunition boxes, opened and left out on the floor.
“He tried to load the shotgun too, but couldn’t get the lock off. There is no evidence of a struggle. Sean came with $10,000 and a six-pack of beer.”
Sean Jason Piper had been buying marijuana in the Laytonville area and selling it in San Diego for about ten years. He and Cohen had been housemates and partners in the pot business. Then they had a falling out and another couple, Jonathan Arnold and Tesha Bushnell, took over Piper's piece of the action.
Mr. McMenomey reminded the jury of Cohen's testimony.
“The defendant said he did not shoot outside. The overwhelming evidence says he did. He says he didn’t intend to kill Sean, the overwhelming evidence says he did. Now, if a witness lies to you once, you don’t have to believe anything else that liar says. And the evidence shows that the defendant is lying. The victim was shot in the back twice. He was probably trying to get away the first time. Then he was executed with a final shot to the back of the head.”
In a county where everyone is aware that home invasions are just one more fact of rural life in the larger context of social collapse, well, two jurors seemed to have been convinced that Terry Cohen had indeed been home invaded.
Even after this second round of arguments, the jury hung a second time, a mistrial was declared, and a new trial set.
But if outback property owners live in fear of home invasions, the homeless fear direct frontal assaults on their unsheltered selves.
Gerold Knight was homeless when he got stomped and got his throat cut on the Ukiah railroad tracks.
The People say Alva Reeves and Brandon Pinola, also members of the homeless “community,” murdered Gerold Knight, a man they'd known for years.
Jury selection was completed by last Wednesday morning, and as soon as Cohen’s jury was out the door, a new jury was ushered in to hear the case against Reeves and Pinola.
Projected onto a big screen before the crowded courtroom were the dreadful remains of the victim’s half-naked body. Gerold Knight lay on his back. His pants were pulled down to his knees and his shirt shoved up to the bloody mess his killers had made of his head.
Gerold Knight drew his last breath in what is described as “a transient camp” on the abandoned railroad tracks that bisect Ukiah.
The first witness, Deborah Enns, a criminologist from the state crime lab in Eureka, had been called to the scene on June 14th of 2008.
“I determined he received substantial injury to the head. He bled there long enough to cause a pool of blood one foot in diameter -- then he was moved or flipped over and bled out on his back, the pool under his head being about two feet in diameter.”
Ms. Enns had also found bloody footprints on the victim’s pants, and there were blood spatters and smears on two pairs of shoes, one belonging to Reeves, the other to Pinola.
In a pretrial hearing there'd been an argument about who the bloody shoes belonged to.
DA Jill Ravitch had bloody shoes for both defendants.
One pair of shoes had been wiped, the other washed with water, Ravitch said. But these clean-up measures didn’t get all the blood off and the stereospectograph at the crime lab detected it.
The lawyers for Reeves and Pinola — Berry Robinson and Farris Purviance III — went after the shoes.
Mr. Robinson said, “As I understand it, you were not able to determine whose shoes left the imprints on the victim’s clothing?”
“That’s correct,” Enns said.
Mr. Purviance wanted to know if the witness could define “blood spatters.”
“Yes,” she said. “Very small drops or spray. A spatter usually has a circular pattern. Magnified pictures of the shoes clearly showed blood spatters on both pair.”
Chief Deputy DA Jill Ravitch called her next witness, Cheryl Sanders.
Ms. Sanders had been living in her van very near the scene of the crime. She thought highly of the victim. She'd known him -- “Gerry,” she called him -- for seven years, maybe more. As she remembered her relationship with the late Gerold Knight, Ms. Sanders started crying and had to leave the courtroom to recompose herself. Judge Brown suggested Ms. Ravitch call another witness, but Ms. Sanders was determined to see the thing through, “for Gerry's sake,” and returned to the stand.
She testified that a group of homeless people known as the Track People lived near an abandoned tanker car parked on a siding.
“Was Gerry Knight one of the Track People,” Ravitch asked.
“Yeah, he was one of them.”
“What about Alva Reeves?”
“Sonny...?” Ravitch seemed lost.
“Do you mean him,” Sanders asked, looking daggers at Alva Reeves.
“Yes,” Ravitch said catching on. “Was 'Sonny' one of the Track People?”
“Nah,” Sanders said. “No way. Oh, he wanted to be, but he wasn't. Sonny never brought anything. He was always showing up with that sad look on his face,” she said contemptuously. “But he was just a wanna-be.”
“So,” Ravitch pried, “the Track People were separate form the other homeless people?”
“That's right,” Sanders confirmed. “The Street People would come there, but the Track People would kick them out.”
Ravitch asked, When was the last time you saw Gerry alive?”
“It was Friday, the 13th, the day before he was killed. I loaned him $50 and my friend loaned him $20.”
“Where did Gerry keep his money?” Ravitch asked.
“In his right front pants pocket,” Sanders said.
Gerold Knight's pockets had been turned inside-out.
And that was as far as justice got on Thursday.
Judge Brown was absent with a toothache on Friday, but the trial is set to resume on Monday.
On the bus-ride home I met a couple of guys just released from jail. One of them had known the victim, Gerry Knight. “I hope Judge Brown hangs the killers,” he said. “Gerry never hurt anybody.”
* * *
In Judge Richard Henderson's court, convicted meth dealer Nancie Henthorne, formerly of Covelo, was sentenced to seven long years in prison. Seven years for a 68 year-old grandmother like Mrs. Henthorne is more like a death sentence, and Ms. Henthorne's lawyer, Justin Petersen, argued passionately for leniency, meticulously picking apart the severe probation recommendation which Judge Henderson said he was inclined to follow despite his reservations about sending a woman nearly 70 years of age to the State Pen.
Petersen pointed out that almost all of the instances in the report the probation department cited as “aggravating” were in fact common factors in all meth-for-sale cases.
“Not only that,” he said, “but they take the aggravating circumstances in one aspect of the case and try to apply it to all the others, as well. They don't seem to get it,” he said. “They can't have it both ways. One factor can only be weighed one time.”
“For instance,” Petersen said, “they say that because there were no Pay and Owe sheets, that this must have been a sophisticated operation. But If they had found P&O sheets, they would contend that this was evidence of a sophisticated operation.”
Tim King, the probation officer, and apparent author of the report, looked on, an amused smile on his face.
Petersen then addressed the aggravating circumstance of the firearm found in Henthorne's house.
“My client did have a weapon -- a dinky little .22 Derringer, the least dangerous gun possible --”
“Before you go any further,” Henderson interrupted, “I've already decided on the minimum sentence for the possession of the weapon, Mr. Petersen.”
Petersen dropped it, with a “Thank you, your honor.”
“Moving on,” Petersen continued, “I'd like to mention that my client was trying to get through very difficult times and just found out this morning that she has lost her house on top of everything else.”
Henderson didn't sympathize with this rationale for drug dealing, saying that “if that excuse were to apply to everybody, we'd have a worse problem than we already have.”
Judge Henderson said he'd had a difficult time with this case, but that meth sales was a scourge on the community, and that meth cases took far and away the lion's share of the court's resources.
Considering that 51 pounds of meth were recently found in a Ukiah warehouse, and at least 13 suspects implicated, crank is certainly popular among Mendocino County's self-medicators.
“I sympathize with Ms. Henthorne's plight,” the judge said. “She lost her business and her house. But it seems to me she has taken a very selfish approach to solving her financial problems. I am concerned — especially with the substantial amount found in her possession — perhaps as much as 2,000 doses of meth in her house, ready to sell. She admitted she'd been selling the drug for eight or nine months and could easily be considered a mid-level dealer in Round Valley where it is a serious problem. This issue of her age has caused me much concern, but I do not find any unusual circumstance for placing her on probation. The court is going to deny probation at this time and sentence her to the mid-term of two years, with an additional three years for the firearm allegation because it was only a .22 derringer.”
Mr. Petersen asked for a two-week surrender date so Ms. Henthorne could make arrangements for a five-year absence, but the prosecutor wanted the old lady taken off that very instant. The judge agreed, and the grandmother who'd dealt methamphetamine out of her Covelo restaurant to keep her family afloat was gently grasped by the bailiff and led out of the courtroom as her daughter ran out into the hallway in tears.