by Bruce McEwen, July 14, 2010
Last week we left Bess Sanderson hanging at the County Jail. We thought she’d made bail. In fact, she’d hadn’t bailed. She was still hanging Wednesday morning, and she hung for over an hour waiting for her lawyer, Mark Kalina once she got to the Court House. Bess's two kids — the ones she left hanging in her van while she went out drinking in Mendocino — had gone into a foster home, and were no doubt pining for their mother, since they are only four and nine months old.
When somebody says they want a good lawyer, what they mean is not that they want a good lawyer as opposed to an evil lawyer, but rather that they want a lawyer to intelligently represent them, not incompetent one. But all lawyers have to meet a certain standard of competency to pass the state bar. So they're all "good lawyers" in the test-taking sense. They all make the same defense motions for the same sets of charges against their clients, but certain lawyers, the most expensive ones, have an uncanny knack for getting their motions granted while others typically, especially court appointed public defenders tend heavily to get theirs denied.
So when Marilyn Wallace, a person with resources, found out that her daughter, Bess Sanderson, was in hot water with Mendocino County Child Protective Services for child neglect plus charges of welfare fraud, she of course wanted the best lawyer she could afford, one who had some pull with the local judges. She ended up with Mark Kalina, a real good lawyer. And so here the court was, waiting for Kalina and his basso-profundo voice to make his entrance.
The same thing had happened a couple of weeks before in the case involving Bess Sanderson's husband, James Sanderson. His lawyer, Richard Petersen, also has a lot of pull with the judges. On that occasion, Petersen had forgotten he had a court date and was out of town. Automatic postponement, no problemo. If a public defender "forgot" to show up he'd probably be looking at contempt of court charges. But Petersen and Kalina? It's free pass time.
The court waited over an hour for Mr. Kalina to appear, and when he finally showed up, the other side was missing. The deputy DAs prosecuting Bess Sanderson couldn't be found.
Meanwhile, everybody's playing an expensive game of Diddly Squat on the County's dime.
Eventually Deputy DA Brian Newman arrived and the proceedings got underway. Mr. Kalina said his client would plea to the welfare fraud which would be reduced to a misdemeanor. Mr. Newman agreed to the arrangement, telling the court that the restitution check for over $5K would be in his office later that day. The motion was granted. The felony child endangerment charge came with a mandatory 48 months probation and mandatory parenting classes, but Kalina wanted a review in a year's time to have this felony reduced to a misdemeanor as well. The motion was not attended with any lengthy or eloquent arguments, no verbal persuasion was needed, but it was nonetheless granted.
The remaining counts were dismissed.
Bess Sanderson was released on her own recognizance.
The Sandersons had been selling enormous quantities of marijuana for enormous amounts of cash through FedEx as they drew welfare benefits will living in a multi-million dollar mansion in Mendocino. That, and one night Mrs. Sanderson had left her kids in her car about ten pm while she enjoyed a couple of belts at Dick's Place. Mr. Sanderson was intercepted by law enforcement hawks as he took FedEx delivery of $80,000 cash-money. He followed that act by starring in a video on the Willits' Burger King's security cameras in which he played himself falling drunk out of a stolen pick-up truck.
This family has "issues," as they say.
Judgment and sentencing for Bess is set for September 17th at 1:30 by which time it is apparently presumed she will have sinned no more.
Hubbykins remains under lock and key.
Another defendant who got left hanging at the County jail was Mr. Darvel Blackwell.
Mr. Blackwell was one of the defendants in the two counts of first degree attempted murder that happened last fall on Chicken Ridge in Covelo. Another defendant, Marquis Walker, pled out a couple of months ago and has since returned to Valencia (Los Angeles) on probation. Mr. Walker said he was merely the driver for the men who did the shooting so, accepting him at his word, the court let him off light. Another defendant, Clifton Jacobs, pled No Contest last week to an amended charge of attempted unpremeditated murder. This arrangement leaves Blackwell hanging as the sole remaining defendant, and he's facing the longest prison term although we defy anyone to say with any reasonable precision what the hell happened that exciting Thanksgiving weekend in Covelo.
There was some indication that the prosecutor, Deputy DA Matt Hubley, mishandled the case – or maybe the DA's case was so weak that Mr. Hubley, who is not one of the senior partners at the DAs Office, got stuck with it. Or, as mentioned, At any rate, on this day, the big guns had been called in to help him out: Chief Deputy DA Jill Ravitch was there, fresh from her successful campaign for DA in Sonoma County. Remember how you felt when Mommy came running at you with a coat hanger or the lamp cord? That's how defendants feel when they see Ravitch coming.
When Ms. Ravitch marched briskly into the courtroom she said to Hubley, "So, why am I here?"
Hubely started to explain the mystery, but then – cutting a glance in my direction – thought better of it. He led Ravitch into the hallway and closed the door. After an interval of hallway conferring, the two returned, and all the lawyers disappeared into the judge's chambers. The other people's tribunes present were Berry Robinson, the Alternate Public Defender representing Jacobs, and Carly Dolan, a deputy public defender, Blackwell's lawyer.
I remind the reader that this is the case where the Willits cops had trouble telling one black guy from another; they kept arresting the black victim, releasing him, then bagging him again until they got the alleged perps straight from the alleged vic. And a year later a gang of lawyers is going into court to claim they each know what happened that night on Chicken Ridge? Please.
The lawyers were in chambers with Judge Henderson for a long time. When they came out, Ms. Ravitch departed as briskly as she'd appeared, and Robinson and Dolan went to confer with their respective clients.
Robinson and Jacobs seemed to be having a pleasant discussion, but the discussion Dolan was having with Blackwell lacked pleasantness. In fact, it seemed hostile. When the discussions were over, Jacobs entered his plea.
If he pled to "attempted unpremeditated" murder and entered a No Contest plea to Count IV, felon with a firearm he'd get a lot less time in state prison, a maximum of seven years, a minimum of a year in County Jail where he's already been lodged for a year with probation. The offense is considered a strike, and with these two adventures Mr. Jacobs would have three felonies on his record. He'll be back August 3rd for judgment and sentencing.
Darvel Blackwell's trial date was reset to commence on October 4th. He'll be facing the music alone, now that the other two have pled out. This was done over his objection, he said, and it was plain that he and his lawyer were in disagreement. Blackwell's got himself a real predicament.
Carly Dolan is one of the hardest-working and most effective lawyers in the Public Defender’s Office, so lack of adequate counsel is not Blackwell's problem. It's his record. He has an armed robbery conviction, a "serious felony," on his rap sheet and that's what's called a "nickel strike" which adds five years to any sentence.
If he takes the same deal Jacobs got, his seven years would be doubled to 14 for the strike, and five more added to that for the nickel strike, exposing him to 19 years, not counting firearm enhancements.
Another problem Blackwell has is the Mendocino County Jail. He doesn't like it. Nobody except maybe Captain Fathom likes being in jail, but more and more people are complaining about conditions at the facility on Low Gap Road in Ukiah. More and more people are locked up there in a time of shrinking county budgets. Some prisoners have attempted to complain to the judges, but the judges won't hear it. They tell the prisoners they must go through the proper channels, and the proper channels are the jailers themselves.
The editor of this fine publication tells me that "the first time" he was confined to Low Gap back in the middle 1980's, he was able to persuade inmates to sign a petition he'd drafted, a writ directly served on the Superior Court of Mendocino notifying the Court that the Jail was legally overcrowded and that the place was literally falling apart. "There were holes punched in the sheetrock so sheetrock dust was always in the air, the showers couldn't be turned all the way off, plumbing backed up and so on. I slept on the floor of the tv room the first week I was there it was so illegally jammed. The goddam judges sure as hell knew what was happening, but a lot of guys in there were so used to being pushed around they just assumed it was the way things were supposed to be. The upshot of our writ was a bunch of people were released and the present falling down jail got built. Yeah, I got in a few hassles, but some tough guys backed me up and they went away. It's about impossible to avoid fights in a jail setting. The food was pretty good, though, especially the soup. I'll give them that."
Many people who have been locked up out on Low Gap Road recently have complained to me personally. Of course, anyone who requests a tour of the jail will be obliged. But I've been told that "after all the Cub Scouts and Den Mothers leave, the lace curtains come down." Basically, there’s a day jail and a night jail. It’s the night time jail that’s the main problem. People say they can't get medical attention, the facility is squalid with filth and mold, and that violence is rampant. "It's one of the worst jails in the state," an undisclosed source with considerable authority confided. You'd never know it by the spiffy new uniforms the prisoners are wearing these days. With all the fuss over the Sheriff's budget one can't help but wonder why the prisoners needed a new wardrobe this summer. Perhaps it's part of the facade.
So Mr. Blackwell doesn't want to waive time, but his lawyer, now on her own with this complex case, needs more time to prepare for trial. On the way out of the Courthouse, I overheard her ask Mr. Robinson if he'd ever tried a case involving a polygraph. Apparently, she thinks somebody's lying. From what I've seen of this case, I think everyone involved is lying. Why wouldn't they?
Marcos Escareno is still hanging, too. He's been hanging for years in Juvenile Hall, or whatever they've finally decided to call it. He'll be "back sometime next month," to see how he's hanging. By then, maybe the kid will be transferred to his next phase of incarceration in the shooting death of Enoc Cruz on the Manchester rez back in 2007 when Escareno was 14 and Cruz was 22. Escareno, interrogated while he was falling down drunk, pled to manslaughter even though many people don't think he was the killer. He took what's called a West plea, meaning his lawyers – some of the best available, including Katherine Elliott, Omar Figueroa, and the legendary Tony Serra – didn't think they could beat the state's case against him and the boy would end up serving even more time for something he might not have done.
How could this be? How could an innocent kid get convicted by a fair and impartial jury?
Escareno confessed. He was 14 and drunk at the time he allegedly shot Cruz, a dope dealer and consensus bad guy. The kid also suffers a complex learning disability complicated by drug and alcohol abuse – which is rampant on the Manchester-Point Arena Reservation – and he was so drunk when the cops arrived he couldn't stand. He made a complete, on-the-spot confession to the cops in a terminally impaired state. Nonetheless, the Honorable Ronald Brown, ruled the confession was legit – which means the jury would never get to hear the implications of impropriety, nor consider the boy's mental state. Judge Brown also ruled that Escareno, who only recently turned 17, and, mentally, at least, will probably never be fully adult, even in the dubious American sense of the term, would have to be tried as an adult.
So Escareno took the West plea and got sentenced to 10 years. In the meantime, the victim's uncle asked for restitution in the amount of $7,500 for the funeral and burial of the late Mr. Cruz plus $1,488 to reimburse the uncle and his wife for two trips to Mendocino County so they could attend Escareno's judgment and sentencing. Cruz's aunt and uncle, the only people in the world who cared about him, had had to make two trips to Ukiah from way out of the area because the first time the lawyers weren't ready to go and the thing had to be put off, which is what often happens to poor people traveling long distances to get to our blithely middle-class courtrooms with their nice pay and travel allowances.
Ms. Elliott said she was not arguing the amounts, she was just stating a general objection that the kid obviously couldn't pay. Over Elliott's objection, Judge Brown ordered that restitution indeed be paid. How this kid is supposed to come up with the nine grand wasn't addressed. The lawyers talked about the appeal and the pending transfer, and put it back on the calendar for next month.