Murder One

by Bruce McEwen, March 18, 2010

Brandon Pinola and Alva Reeves were convicted of First Degree Murder last Thursday.

Everybody asks me, “What did they look like?”

They looked like two heavy young Indians with their hair roached off.

“No,” people say. “I mean their faces. What do you think they were thinking when jury found them guilty? How did they feel?”

All through the grim and sometimes shocking trial nothing moved either man out of his dull gloom, so I can’t imagine that the verdict — which surprised no one — had much effect on them.

The psychologist, Dr. Kouchner, put it plainly when he said, “Alva no longer gets any pleasure out of life.”

And he isn't 40.

A burnt-out hulk, Reeves mostly looked on impassively, sometimes staring vacantly at the appalling photographs of his former boy friend as if it was a mound of road kill. The only time he showed any emotion is when his co-defendant put the blame for the murder on him.

When the shrinks say Alva Reeves is a diminished capacity case, they aren't just making excuses for his behavior. The guy is off, way off, a kind of walking dead man.

Co-defendant Brandon Pinola isn't as far gone. He would glance at the grizzly photos of the murdered man and cut his eyes quickly away. Worry sometimes rippled the dark pool of sadness in his eyes, but not often.

These two sad-sacks had murdered the closest thing to a friend either one of them had. But they didn’t show any regret for what they’d done to Gerold Knight, looking on blankly like they were waiting for a bus.

Gerold Jerry Knight was beaten and his throat cut on the old railroad tracks in Ukiah. It was the warm, late afternoon of Friday the 13th of June, 2008 on the railroad tracks near Perkins Street that run north-south through Ukiah, railroad tracks left over from a more optimistic time, railroad tracks unlikely to ever see another train, railroad tracks that are now home to the permanently untracked.

Pinola said Reeves did it. Reeves said Pinola did it, that and diminished capacity.

That was their defense.

All three men were drunk. Drunk is not a legal excuse, but it was used variously to explain how a man could be murdered in the most ignominious way, his head stomped, his trousers pulled dawn, probably sodomized, his throat cut and his pockets turned out like dog ears at his ankles.

All for 60, maybe 70 bucks.

Cheryl Sanders testified that she'd given Gerry Knight $50 dollars. Janet Duval had given Gerry another $20. Ms. Sanders didn’t know Pinola but she knew Alva Reeves — “Sonny,” she called him. She said Sonny was a mooch.

“Sonny never brought anything but that sad look on his face,” Sanders said. “But Gerry would always give him a beer; Gerry was just that way. He’d help anybody.”

Sonny's lawyer, Berry Robinson, tried to paint the dead man's relationship with Alva as a partnership, but there was no evidence to suggest anything but Alva mooching off Gerry, who was a soft touch, as they say.

Brandon Pinola lived off his mother, but she kicked him out when he was drinking. That’s how he ended up down on the tracks that day with Alva, drinking Gerry’s beer.

When Alva and Brandon discovered that Gerry had a little money they decided to take it. Which they proceeded to do, helping themselves to Gerold Knight's life along with the seventy dollars in his pocket.

Brandon Pinola, having worked up a good thirst helping beat Jerry to death, walked west from the tracks and the dead man to get himself a pitcher of beer at the Forest Club bar a few blocks away. Brandon also needed to wash the incriminating blood off his famous shoes — I say “famous” shoes because Brandon had kicked and stomped Gerold Knight after Alva Reeves had repeatedly punched their old drinking buddy into a bloody mess. Alva punched him and punched him and then he cut his throat.

Brandon Pinola was out on bail for attacking an old man on Mason Street. That one was your basic unprovoked assault. Brandon had knocked the old guy down and had proceeded to kick him, breaking the old guy's ribs. Witnesses said the old man would have been killed if Brandon hadn’t been pulled off and then tazered into total submission by the Ukiah Police Department. A witness said that “Brandon did a little victory dance, sort of like Cassius Clay,” as he attacked the downed man.

Kinda makes you wonder why this kid — he's 22 — was out walking around Ukiah after this one.

The June afternoon they finished off Jerry Knight, Alva Reeves followed Brandon Pinola to the Forest Club. Alva wanted some of the money plundered from the dead man's pockets, not that the killers knew for a fact they'd killed their friend. For all they knew poor old Jerry had survived their onslaught.

Once inside Ukiah's busy Friday night hotspot they bought themselves a pitcher of beer — a treat they hadn't been able to afford an hour before.

“If you had the money earlier, why were you asking people to buy you a beer?”

“I wanted to save my money,” Pinola testified.

“Where did you get it?”

“It doesn’t matter where I got it, I just had it.”

The jury obviously didn’t buy it, didn't buy the truculence either. The jury did believe Pinola’s testimony that Reeves participated in the beating and had cut Knight’s throat.

Defense attorney Robinson had hoped to convince the jury that Alva Reeves, who had his own head busted in a beating years ago, wasn’t capable of anything as complex as killing a man for the money in his pockets. This was where psychologist Dr. Kouchner came in.

A tweedy old boy right down to the suede patches on his elbows, the doctor looked like a cartoon shrink. His gray beard and horn-rim glasses were right out of Freud, and his voice had the professorial drone of a fly buzzing in a jar.

“Mr. Reeves gave me a good effort, he was not merely malingering. And this bolstered my opinion. It had more to do with his ability to focus attention and store information in the memory.”

When the doctor said “focus attention” he pointed his forefingers at his temples, as if to remind everyone that the head is home to thought and memory. When the doctor said “store information” he compressed something invisible between his palms, moved to one side, and asked, rhetorically, “Now, what do I mean by that?”

Dr. Kouchner went patronizingly and implausibly on.

Anyone looking at Reeves knew at a glance he was damaged goods, not all there.

The doctor said his tests of Reeves had been “comprehensive and exhaustive. I read him a paragraph and asked him to repeat it back to me, then we did a few other things and I asked if he remembered those two stories I had told him before. Now, when I talked about percentile before, I said that he was better than 37% but less than 63%, and so his recognition memory was quite good. But he couldn’t pull this up on his own. We have special areas in the brain you see…”

I was still wondering at the 37% figure. More than a third of the people walking around out there are operating at a lower brain frequency than this guy?

Prosecutor, Jill Ravitch, as always right on task, interrupted the doctor's monologue. “The answer is non-responsive.”

Mr. Robinson, undeterred, and perhaps in revenge for Ravitch's interruption, asked his garrulous witness, “Can you tell us what memory is and how it works?”

Silent despair rippled through the room, but Dr. Kouchner was instantly energized.

His hands flying enthusiastically, the doctor elaborated. And elaborated. And elaborated some more.

Judge Brown, belatedly remembering he was in charge, cut the doctor off, instructing him to wait until he was asked a question and answer only the question asked.

The doctor, however, would not be stopped by mere judicial authority.

Dr. Kouchner was taking thousands of words to explain what most of us would know on sight — that Alva Reeves would have to think long and hard to come up with a two-step plot on his own, even one as simple as “Let’s kill this guy and take his money.” Reeves had taken a knock on the head in his youth and the resulting brain damage, coupled with multiple substance abuse or, if you prefer, years of self-medicating, denied Reeves the ability to formulate a two-step plan.

Summing up the doctor’s testimony, Reeves' beleaguered attorney, Mr. Robinson, said, “Murder is a thinking man’s crime. Reeves wasn’t capable of coming up with and carrying out such a complex plan.”

Complex?

See man with money. Hit man on head. Take money.

Reeves is pretty limited, but not this limited.

Prosecutor Jill Ravitch changed Dr. Kouchner’s tone, if not his tune.

“You are not board certified, are you, Dr. Kouchner?”

“No,” the doctor admitted, promptly launching into a circuitous explanation that back in the day, the old-school era of his time, board certification was considered a new-fangled frippery.

Ravitch quickly cut through the doctor's unconvincing attempt to shore up his deficient bona fides.

“So you didn’t review your test results in light of the newer norms?”

“No, in this case I did not,” the doctor said with an air of disdain for these so-called 'newer norms.' What the hell will these Newer Norm people think of next? Electricity? Internal combustion? Computers?

Ravitch said, “So your spin on it is that…?”

“Objection, your honor,” Robinson said shooting to his feet. “I object to counsel characterizing the witness’s expert testimony as ‘spin’!”

It was a certainly a valid objection and Judge Brown sustained it.

Ravitch tried again.

“But your use of the phrase ‘very impaired’ — this term is not in the testing material is it?”

Kouchner launched into a hazy definition of the phrase that threatened to become interminable.

The judge cut Kouchner off in mid-ramble.

“Answer the question, sir!”

“Well,” Kouchner affirmed testily, “That’s my opinion.”

Ms. Ravitch clasped her hands at the small of her back and bowed her head, perhaps to hide a wee smile of vindication.

“So,” she said, “you came out with a different opinion than Dr. Kelly (a local psychologist with an enviable reputation for probity) “regarding Mr. Reeves mental state?”

The doctor coughed nervously and said, “Yes, I suppose it was.”

“In fact, Dr. Kelly had a different diagnosis’—

“I refuted it, yes.”

“But in your report you say there hasn’t been another diagnosis, other than yours.”

The doctor again attempted a lengthy defense of his methods, but Judge Brown made him own up.

“In fact,” Ravitch continued, closing in for the kill, “the DSM [the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual, the psychiatric bible) that you based your findings on is merely a statistical manual, isn’t it? And isn’t it generally used in a clinical setting? In point of fact, isn’t there a warning in the front of the book about using it in a forensic setting?”

And there was the matter of compensation for the doc's expert testimony.

Wasn’t it something like $16,000?

Kouchner said that by the time it was all said and done his bill would be more like $35,000.

I didn't hear the closing arguments, but apparently the jury was not persuaded by the defense or Dr. Kouchner. They were right back with two guilty verdicts.

The defendants’ people were pretty upset although it's hard to understand why they would be. Jerry Knight had died a hard death at the hands of these two characters. Still, though, disorderly post-verdict conduct was a strong possibility.

The deputies had staged a ruse to hustle the defendants out a side door to keep post-verdict emotion to a minimum. They set up a cordon like they were going to bring the two of them out the back. The feint drew a couple of disgruntled characters to the back door. But the cops had had a meter-maid move the cars at the side door where the paddy-wagon was idling, ready to go, and off went Alva Reeves and Brandon Pinola.

I asked prosecutor Ravitch for a statement.

She said, “Justice was served.”

I dutifully wrote the cliché in my notebook, folded it and put it away. Then she opened up.

She said, “I was afraid the jury wouldn’t see Gerry as a worthwhile human being. The attitude, so often, is that these people, the street people, are pretty much, well…”

Expendable.

Gerold Knight had died a terrible death. A harmless soul beaten to death for no reason at all other than 70 dollars and pure viciousness.

A little over a year ago, I was at the Buddy Eller Homeless Shelter. They turned me out of doors after the Christmas weekend because I wasn't a county resident. I wandered the streets, begging for work, camping along the same tracks where Jerry Knight died. I’d been beaten up Christmas morning myself in SoHum, my meager possessions taken, and I had spent the Prince of Peace's birthday hitch-hiking with a bloated, bloody face. A guy with four pit bulls picked me up. With the dogs snarling and licking my ears he said, “Just behave yourself, and everything will be fine. Do you smoke?”

I did.

“Where you going,” he asked.

“Boonville,” I said.

“Never heard of it,” he laughed.

In short, I knew whereof she spoke. Ravitch, I mean. I've been where Jerry Knight had been.

She asked me what I thought. I said something vague, but later I was hoping she’d lose her bid for DA in Sonoma County — purely for selfish reasons: We need her here. She's good at her work.

I was standing outside the Forest Club when Brandon Pinola’s lawyer, Farris Purviance III, came out of the China Chef restaurant next door. He was with a party of diners from the Public Defender’s office. I wanted a comment from Purviance, but it was young Attila Panczel’s big day, the linen table cloths and crystal at the upscale Chinese restaurant, Panczel's reward for getting a hung jury against the testimony of Officer Peter Hoyle who had busted his client with half a gram of heroin.

“Put that in your AVA,” Panczel jeered at me. The group of hard-hitting lawyers threw their smug heads back and strolled chortling down to the crosswalk. I had predicted Panczel would lose based on Officer Hoyle’s assessment of the case.

Purviance yelled back from the safety of his clan and the distance between us — “And just what the fuck does ‘Trollopian’ mean, anyway?”

He was referring to an adjective I’d used to describe the 19th century implications of his name, the literary implications of his classy moniker. I offered to sell him a dictionary, but he snorted with contempt and strolled back to the courthouse, sniggering at me over his shoulder, not Trollopian in the least.

I would have called his office for a statement, but I know from long experience that the publicly-funded Public Defender’s office owes nothing whatsoever to the public. They will neither answer nor return calls from the media unless that media are slobbering at their arrogant, incompetent feet.

I strolled up the block to Berry Robinson’s office. Mr. Robinson is Trollopian, gracious and gentlemanly.

The office looked like a rummage sale. He apologized for the disarray and cleared off a chair for me.

“I was of course hoping for something better,” he said. “We’d been offered a plea bargain for second degree murder, but I thought we could do better.”

“Did you like the jury?”

“I did. And you know the foreperson turned out to be the pastor.”

“The one Ravitch wanted excused for helping the Pinola family out?”

“Yes. Juror No. 10.”

“What was that business about Dr. Kouchner’s bill? Is it really $35,000?”

“No! More like $15,000. But the DA always does that. They have their experts, but make a fuss over ours. It’s all very… Well! You know, she hired a neuropsychologist from Santa Rosa to go over Dr. Kouchner's report.”

“What do you think the sentence will be?”

“Twenty-five to life, that’s a given in California. Plus, my client has a strike for shooting his brother.”

“What about Pinola?”

“Well, he still has to face the Mason Street deal where he kicked hell out of the old man. If I had been Pinola’s lawyer, I would have tried to get a better deal with the DA for his testimony against my client. But it doesn’t look like they did that.”

Sentencing is set for April 23rd.

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