Jonathan Opet For The Defense
by Bruce McEwen, August 16, 2017
Anderson Valley’s very own Atticus Finch (the character played by Gregory Peck in the Hollywood version of To Kill A Mockingbird), Jonathan Opet of the Office of the Public Defender lives on Peachland Road with KZYX newscaster Valerie Kim and their infant daughter. He is an outstanding lawyer, a man of humble candor, sterling ethics, polished manners and, well, just a gem of a guy, really, a many-faceted ornament the Anderson Valley can take considerable pride in. I styled Mr. Opet as “Atticus Finch” not only because he sort of looks like a young Gregory Peck, but also because he shares with that memorable character — which author Harper Lee said in an interview was based on her father — the same kind of moral courage it took to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman in the rural Southeast during the Great Depression.
Mr. Opet has taken on some truly appalling cases in his short time at the defense bar, and handled them all with unflinching integrity, producing solid results. And if the crime beat features Mr. Opet’s work more often than any other lawyer’s it is not out of any homeboy favoritism, nor because he used to be a newspaper reporter, but because he is one of the busiest and ablest lawyers at the County Courthouse.
Last week, for instance, he was defense counsel on all three of the prelims this reporter covered. None of these cases were particularly earth-shaking, no seismic consequences will result from Oliver Minot’s domestic abuse, or Javier Mendez’s failure to return a rental car, nor Jefferson McDonald’s fourth DUI. But in each case there were instances of courtroom drama that showed how critical it is to have such a committed lawyer on the job, providing alleged indigent felons (or so they claimed, though in the case of Mr. McDonald, it’s hard to see how a guy with a new Mercedes-Benz SUV qualifies for a public defender) with constitutionally guaranteed representation.
Let’s start with Oliver Minott, who had come to Mendocino County from Jamaica as a kind of mail-order husband for the bride-to-be, a local woman who runs a medical marijuana operation, and being as though she, Kelleen Minott, said on the stand that she didn’t marry Oliver Minott for “romantic reasons,” this case makes for a new turn on the opening line of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Which sentiment, updated and reset in Mendoland, would read more like this: “It is an axiom regionally recognized, that a single mom in possession of a good ganja pharm must be in need of a Rastafarian hubbykins.”
But now Oliver Minott is facing charges of domestic abuse, and he’s being prosecuted by Deputy DA Elizabeth ‘Beth’ Norman, who specializes in crimes against women, and has been with the Mendocino County DA’s Office for many, many years.
Ms. Norman, a serious threat to men who hurt women, put the victim (alleged) Ms. Kelleen Minott, the defendant’s wife, on the stand and elicited testimony that her exotic new husband, with his leonine mane of dreadlocks, had mistreated her on at least three occasions, once having assaulted her with a machete, and even threatened to cut her head off, in the presence of her children.
When this frightful story about the machete had been told, Judge Ann Moorman (whose own career as a lawyer also centered on women’s advocacy) turned to the defense table and said, “Your witness, Mr. Opet.”
Opet rose and asked in a tone of shocked disbelief, “You said on direct that you kept weapons in the house. Knives and machetes?”
“Of course,” Ms. Minott shrugged nonchalantly. “It’s a pot farm. Things like that are used as tools.”
Opet still sounded horrified. “You kept machetes in a house with all these children living there?”
“I kept the machete in my room by my bed.”
“Was it on your side of the bed or your husband’s?”
“And you said he struck you with it [the flat of the blade] and said he’d cut off your head?”
“He said he would kill all of us,” she answered.
“And the children were present?”
“What did you do?”
“I threw my cell-phone to my 16-year-old daughter and told her to call the police.”
“This all stemmed from an argument you had with Mr. Minott?”
“What led up to it? What had you been doing?”
“We were lying on the bed and he was on his phone.”
“Talking with other women?”
“And this upset you?”
“And you told him to stop?”
“What happened then?”
“He became enraged and grabbed the machete.”
“Where was it?”
“By the bed.”
“And you characterized this and some of the other weapons as tools?”
“How do you mean?”
“They were used to clear paths through the brush, take small branches from trees, stuff like that.”
“Why did you keep it by the bed?”
“Because I didn’t want it around the children… Actually, somebody had stole a machete and I had to buy a new one.”
“Did you call the police and report the theft?”
“Objection,” Ms. Norman said. “Relevance.”
The judge asked, “What’s the relevance?”
Opet withdrew the question, and said, “So, you were not concerned about it?”
“But he became enraged and started screaming?”
“Do you remember what he was saying?”
“All kinds of crazy things.”
“Well, please tell me what they were…?”
“I don’t remember every word.”
“Did you later write any of it down?”
“Not that I recall.”
“But today you remember quite clearly that he said he’d chop off your head and chop you up in little pieces…”
“And the children?”
“Oh, and wait, he said he’d committed murders before, and then said, ‘I’ll chop up your children right in front of you’.”
“Were those his exact words?”
“Oh no. He was speaking in the patois.”
“How did you learn this language?”
“I’ve been involved in communicating this way for many years with people in Jamaica.”
“Did you ask Oliver to come to the US?”
“We were in a relationship on Skype and I asked if he wanted to come for a visit.”
“For an extended period of time?”
“Can you speak this patois language?”
“It’s basically English, very easy to learn.”
“What did he say?”
“Who did you tell?”
“My friend Scott Peterson.”
“Did you call the police?”
“Where were you when he hit you?”
“On the bed.”
“And he hit you with the flat side of the blade?”
“Yes. And he also hit me earlier that day.”
“Yes, a small bruise where my glasses were pushed into my head.”
“Did you photograph it?”
“And this was before you married him?”
“Did this give you any concern?”
“I didn’t marry him for romantic reasons.”
“Why did you marry him then?”
This went on for some time and in the end Judge Moorman was convinced that Mr. Minott had abused his American wife on the three occasions alleged, and he was ordered back to court on August 22nd for arraignment on the information.
The day before, Mr. Opet had been in Judge John Behnke’s court defending Mr. Javier Mendez on charges of grand theft auto for what appeared to be nothing more than a late return on a rented car from Hertz in Ukiah. Deputy DA Barry Shapiro was prosecuting, and his witness, Kevin Bonner, a trainee at Hertz, proved to be an neffective witness.
“Mr. Bonner, did you rent a car to Javier Mendez on January 4th of 2016?”
“I don’t remember. It was very busy and I’d just started a few days earlier.”
Mr. Shapiro picked up a piece of paper and said, “May I approach the witness, your honor.”
“Mr. Bonner, do you recognize what has been marked as People’s Exhibit Number One?”
“Umm… not really.”
“You don’t know what this is?”
“I recognize it as a contract.”
“And isn’t that your signature at the bottom?’
“And isn’t this Mr. Mendez’s signature?”
“Yes, it appears to be.”
“But you don’t remember renting him a car that day?”
“I believe I rented a car that day, but I don’t remember it.”
“Do you see the person who rented that car in court today?”
Bonner looked around the almost empty courtroom and shook his head, no.
Mr. Shapiro looked stunned. He focused on the contract in his hand and after a moment said, “Do you remember when the car was supposed to be returned?”
Shapiro was incredulous. Bonner was shaping up as Mendo’s all-time worst prosecution witness.
Bonner explained. “This is an H-list contract, which means it [the vehicle has been in an accident and needs repairs] goes to the shop, so that puts the turn-in date out five days. And then they can do an ‘extended’ if more time is needed.”
“Was an ‘extended’ done on this one?”
“I don’t recall.”
Shapiro gave up, “Nothing further.”
Opet on cross-examination: “When you rent a vehicle, does that person have to have a credit card?”
“Does the credit card have to be in that person’s name?”
“It can be in someone else’s, but they have to be present.”
“Are customers usually given a return date?”
“But they can extend the turn-in date?”
“Can the date be extended over the phone?”
“Does the extension have to be placed at the location the car was rented from?”
“Usually. But when it’s H-listed, and has been damaged, or goes in for repairs, it can go to the insurance company, because it’s going to the shop.”
“So if a customer goes through an insurance company, and there’s an extension, the insurance company pays?”
“Sometimes. It depends if they quit paying.”
“Then you charge the customer?”
“Yes. But if there’s not enough money on the credit card we contact them and tell them they need to put it on another credit card or bring the car back.”
“Who would decide that?”
“My manager would have to decide, I’m still under training.”
“Thank you, that’s all I have.”
Mr. Shapiro went to his office to see if the manager could be tracked down. If not, the case would be lost on a technicality, as Mr. Mendez has a constitutional right to a continuous prelim. When last I checked, time was running out and the manager hadn’t showed.
A few days later, Mr. Opet was at it again, this time with Jefferson McDonald, who had been found slumped over the wheel of his Mercedes SUV in the Redwood Business Park. CHP Officer Chase Rigby responded to the scene after concerned citizens began to worry about the comatose driver’s health. When Officer Chase arrived, a fire truck and ambulance were already on-scene. Chase tried to rouse the driver, and when he did the vehicle started to roll. Alert paramedic Art Grothe quickly opened the passenger side door, reached across the moving vehicle and shut off the ignition.
Officer Rigby smelled alcohol on Mr. McDonald’s breath, noticed his slurred speech and red, watery eyes, so he got the man out of the SUV, saw he was a little unsteady on his feet, and gave him a field sobriety test, the nystigmus test (eye stability), the walk and turn, the one-legged stand; he didn’t do too well on those, so he was given a breath test and blew a blood alcohol level of .105 the first time, .103 a few minutes later.
Prosecutor Luke Oakley: “Did you ask Mr. McDonald where he was coming from?”
Officer Rigby: “I did.”
Rigby: “He said Sacramento.”
Oakley: “Ask where he was going?”
Oakley: “What’d he say?”
Oakley: “What else?”
Rigby: “I had a records check done and his driver’s license came back suspended.”
Opet: “Objection. Foundation.”
Judge Behnke: “Sustained.”
Oakley had to go back and have Rigby jump through all the formal hoops to establish that this was McDonald’s fourth DUI in less than 10 years and that he was driving on a suspended license which was suspended for DUI.
Opet’s only hope was to get the DUI reduced to a misdemeanor — it’s a felony if you get more than three in 10 years — by noting that his client wasn’t actually driving at the time, and that it had been almost nine years since he got the first of the four DUIs. But it was not enough. With over 35,000 highway deaths every year nationwide and almost a tenth of that, 3300 in California, judges have little tolerance for repeat drunk drivers — what I can’t understand is how somebody with a vehicle like McDonald’s — the MSRP is around $120k — can get a terrific lawyer like our Mr. Opet for free!