Courthouse Rotates The Tires
by Bruce McEwen, November 8, 2017
The County Courthouse is in a state of change, a bustling mass of lawyers moving in many different directions. The seething flux and flow includes several lawyers who have left the Office of the Public Defender and the District Attorney's Office, the most notable among them being the elevation of Assistant Public Defender Carly Dolan to a judgeship by appointment of Governor Jerry Brown.
Other lawyers who have recently left Linda Thompson’s for-the-defense stables include Jonathan Opet, Lindsay Peak, Jay Pitchford, Vishad Dewan, Joseph Laveroni. None of them said goodbye to me — there’s always been a stand-offish policy in effect at the Public Defender’s Office as pertains to newspaper reporters. It’s not just the AVA. My former colleague Tiffany Revelle at the Ukiah Daily Journal often complained at how she could never get any comment from those taciturn advocates for the indigent either.
Public Defender Linda Thompson’s motto is “The noblest motive is the public good.” Curiously, her website is so sparse that it appears the best way to do the public good is to keep the public completely and utterly in the dark as to how the Public Defender goes about its noble errand.
The list of practicing attorneys hasn’t been updated at the Public Defender’s website, so the only name I know among the new hires is Chelsie D'Malta Thurmond who was genial enough to introduce herself to me. An honor, I’m sure. But I fear she risks the wrath of her boss for doing so.
By contrast, all the lawyers leaving the DA’s Office tendered their kind farewells to your trusty Courthouse correspondent. I was even treated to a huge slab of cake from the going-away party. The departures include Joshua Rosenfeld (to Humboldt County, where his wife works for Department of Justice, Eureka), Caitlin Keene (she’ll be joining former Assistant DA Paul Sequeira in Solano County), Barry Shapiro (Stanislaus County), Brian Morimune (to Sonoma County), and two or three others I didn’t really know since they were low-ranking ensigns and limited to the misdemeanor court, leaving four vacant posts on the DA’s duty roster.
However, DA David Eyster is such an engaged administrator that he capably fields any cases not covered due to staff shortages. So much so that I had one of the new public defender deputies tell me how odd it was to find herself facing the DA himself in a misdemeanor matter recently. Again, this Deputy Public Defender is an exception to the rule at the Public Defender’s Office and I hope Ms. Thompson won’t retaliate against her for talking to me.
The new prosecutors include: Thomas Geddes (Deputy DA II), Joe Guzman (Deputy DA II), Jamie Pearl (Deputy DA I), Melissa Weems (Deputy DA I).
Changes include the bailiffs. Deputy Arthur Barclay had his house burned down in the recent wildfire storms and has been gone from Judge Ann Moorman’s court. Sergeant Richard Wagner appeared with a ghostly impression on his sleeves where his stripes had been, and I couldn’t help asking if he got busted down to private for some indiscretion. But it turned out he’d retired and came back on a part-time basis — “They don’t let you keep the rank,” he said.
The Judges themselves are gearing up for another department rotation at the first of the year, as they do every year, to give all their honors a well-rounded experience. The consequence of the anticipated changes must be foreseen and dealt with beforehand, in that criminal defendants have a right to be sentenced by the same judge who took their plea, and so, in Department B, Judge Moorman’s court, for instance, proceedings have sometimes had to wait for Judge Cindee Mayfield to come down and take a plea, since it is anticipated that she will be on the Department B criminal bench when the sentencing takes place after the first of the year — Mayfield is being reassigned from her current duties in family court.
Freshly-minted Superior Court Judge Carly Dolan will have to hand off her current high-profile client, Steven Patrick Ryan, the Ukiah man who shot and killed a young black man last year for dumpster diving in front of Ryan’s property*. This will undoubtedly delay Ryan's trial. And, since Deputy DA Caitlin Keene was Ryan's prosecutor, replacement lawyers for both sides will be needed. DA Eyster himself took over the case of Jeffrey Settler murdered at his Laytonville pot garden by his hired help trimmers. Josh Rosenfeld had been prosecuting that case, which started with seven co-defendants, and still has four awaiting trial.
Judge Dolan will have to hand off another murder case as well, that of Jewel Dyer, accused of murdering his father with a baseball bat in Laytonville last year*. Mr. Dyer was all set to enter a plea two weeks ago, but at the last minute changed his mind, and decided to go through with the trial. In fact, Deputy DA Scott McMenomey and Ms. Dolan were supposed to set a trial date this coming week; but now that will all go out the proverbial window, and another year will flow under the bridge before a new lawyer is ready — even if Linda Thompson herself takes on the case.
Ms. Thompson, by the way, waited until the last minute, as it were, to announce a conflict of interest in another baseball bat murder, the killing of Timothy Sweeting by Joshua Ruoff*. After the Public Defender’s conflict of interest declaration on the eve of trial, the case was handed off to the Office of the Alternate Public Defender, in particular Jan Cole-Wilson who joined that office when she returned to work this summer after a long illness.
Other complications are manifesting themselves daily at the Courthouse, and we’ll try to keep the readership informed as best we can, given the reticence of the judges and lawyers at the Public Defender’s Office — and here we should make it plain that the DA’s Office is always exceptionally forthcoming and helpful. The difference in the two offices is that Eyster is a workhorse, and a combative one at that. Public Defender Thompson isn't.
* (Case backgrounds)
Dyer Case: On 3-28-2016 around 03:30 AM the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office was dispatched to a reported altercation between a father and son that resulted in the death of Sanford Sternick. Sternick was 58 years of age. MCSO Deputies responded to an area south of Laytonville where they located and confirmed the death of Sternick from what appeared to be blunt force trauma. The decedent’s son, Jewel Dyer, 25 years of age, was detained at the scene. … A witness indicated Dyer claimed there was an argument in the early morning hours between he and his father. That argument lead to a physical altercation, which resulted in the father suffering blunt force trauma about the head. A baseball bat, located at the crime scene, was believed to have been used during the altercation. Dyer was transported and booked into the County Jail on murder charges.
* * *
Ruoff Case: On 05-18-2016 at approximately 7:08 PM, Mendocino County Sheriff’s Deputies were called regarding a possible physical assault that occurred the previous day at a residence located in the 23500 block of Road 337D (Also known as Charlie Hurt Highway] in Covelo. Upon arrival, Deputies found evidence of a physical assault and contacted potential witnesses. During this initial investigation, Deputies learned Joshua Richard Ruoff had been witnessed assaulting Timothy William Sweeting with a blunt object on 05-17-2016. Several days later Sheriff’s investigators determined that Ruoff had murdered Sweeting and disposed of his body.
* * *
Ryan Case: On 11-21-2016 around 11:20 hours the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Dispatch received several calls of “shooting in the area” and one call from a male who identified himself as Steven Ryan. Ryan advised that he’d just shot a person near his residence in self defense. Responding Officers found a 20 year old male victim named De’Shaun Davis deceased in the driveway from what appeared to be one or more gunshot wounds. … Ryan and the victim got into in a verbal argument over a possible trespass situation after the victim was seen rummaging through a waste disposal bin on the property. Both parties may have approached each other where numerous shots were fired by Ryan with the victim being struck by one or more rounds from a large caliber handgun. Ryan, who had initially been one of the callers to report the incident, claimed the shooting was in self defense. The investigation led Detectives to believe the shooting may not have met the criteria of a “justified or self defense” shooting. Ryan was arrested on murder charges.
HERE’S A SCENE FROM COURT featuring two of the new lawyers, Deputy DA Thomas Geddes and Deputy Public Defender Mary LeClair in a situation that brings to mind the words of novelist Harper Lee, “Never, never, never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to on cross-examination.”
Deputy DA Geddes had just finished his direct of Ukiah Police Officer C. Oliver, and had it firmly established that Ms. LeClair’s client, Daniel Dean Nelson, had been caught shoplifting on surveillance video cameras at Friedman’s, once in September and again on October 1st.
LeClair on Cross: “When you pulled Mr. Nelson out of the check-out line, did you arrest him?”
Oliver: “It was later, after we had talked about some of his earlier thefts.”
LeClair: “Had you seen the surveillance video already?”
LeClair: “What did it show?”
Oliver: “It showed him [Nelson] picking items from the shelf, taking them out of the boxes, and giving them to his son to put in the diaper bag.”
LeClair: “Now, isn’t it true that no one saw him leaving the store with the stolen merchandise?”
Oliver: “That’s not true. I saw the video of him leaving the store with it.”
LeClair: “Well, maybe you’ve seen a video that I haven’t. Humm… You saw him pushing a cart out of Friedman’s?”
LeClair: “But how do you know he was leaving with the merchandise?”
Oliver: “Well, there’s a video of him taking it, and another of him going out of the store with it.”
LeClair: “Can you see the merchandise in the video where he’s going out of the store?”
LeClair: “Do you have a copy of the merchandise that was recovered?”
Oliver: “I don’t have a copy of it.”
LeClair: “How many times did you see the video?”
Oliver: “Once on September 27th, and again on the 28th.”
LeClair: “When you arrested Mr. Nelson on October 1st, you were going on what you’d seen on the 27th and the 28th of September?”
LeClair: “The video I have shows him in Aisle 40 — not taking anything out of the store. Is it one long continuous video?”
Oliver: “It’s from different cameras. Friedman’s has a pretty good security system.”
LeClair: “Thank you, that’s all I have.”
Deputy DA Geddes: “When you spoke with an employee about the theft on September 22nd, was there any merchandise recovered?”
Oliver: “No, none. There was only empty boxes.”
Judge John Behnke: “The amount of the thefts on the 22nd was over $1000 but the other amounts have not been established.”
Geddes: “The amount was over the threshold for the felony-level [$950]. And another defendant was working as a lookout.”
LeClair: “This is a funny case. Some witnesses have seen evidence I haven’t, so, well, we’ll submit.”
Behnke: “There’s sufficient evidence for a felony holding order as to the thefts on the 22nd, but by law the others can’t be aggregated to reach the $950 limit, so I think the October 1st incident is a separate offense. Although the amount was only marginally over the $950 limit, I’ll order him held to answer on count one, but since I can’t total the two incidents, the October 1st incident, count two will have to remain a misdemeanor. And you are ordered to stay away from Friedman’s, Mr. Nelson. We’ll have this back on November 19th for arraignment on the information.”
This kind of carry-your-calculator shoplifting has been going on ever since Prop 47 increased felony theft to $950 – it’s a better sign of inflation than any official indicators – and it puts the “go figure” element back in petty theft.
Notwithstanding those lawyers who coveted the appointment for themselves, the elevation of Assistant Public Defender Carly Dolan to Superior Court Judge should send a peal of approbation resonating through the local defense bar – Yeah! A judge so young and cool, like Shannon Cox, the other candidate for the judge job — as Ms. Cox herself would be quick to admit, I think, since both lawyers are about equal in many things, such as age, education, experience in the profession, connection to the community, family matters (they both married Jasons, same number of kids), and general competency.
Judge Dolan was preparing for trial in two homicide cases when the appointment came, and one of them at least, was what’s called a high-profile murder, the case of Steven Patrick Ryan accused of shooting down a black Mendocino College football player in cold blood for dumpster diving after recyclables in Ryan’s front yard. The other homicide defendant she was defending is Jewel Dyer, accused of killing his father with a baseball bat in Laytonville last year.
I remember Ms. Dolan seated in the grandstands in Boonville watching the sheep dog trials a few years ago, and her husband and two kids exclaiming with delight as the dogs herded the sheep through the obstacles – I had no idea her husband had died, but I knew she’d taken emergency leave: Such is the Politburo secrecy with which Linda Thompson runs the Office of the Public Defender.
Will Carly Dolan be too lenient as a judge?
This is the fear of Law Enforcement any time a public defender – or any defense lawyer, for that matter — gets a black robe. But as was the case with the late Judge Ron Brown (also appointed from the Public Defender’s Office), and also with Judge Ann Moorman and, more recently, Judge Keith Faulder, these fears of a judge coming in and cutting all the criminals loose did not occur. Their honors Faulder and Moorman have certainly allayed such cop worries, and, well, as far as that goes, Judge Brown was more of a “hanging judge” than even Judge Richard Henderson, the one Dolan will be replacing.
In point of fact, we should note that Ms. Cox, having married a cop who is now an investigator at the Lake County DA’s Office (Jason Cox), may have been passed over for the appointment on the basis that she was too heavily influenced by the prosecutorial leanings in her life, above and beyond her career as a Deputy DA, and therefore perhaps the governor felt she might lean too far to the State’s side in any given case.
Now, for the important question: Will the shy defense advocate, Ms. Dolan, be as entertaining as the other judges? Certainly, she has her work cut out for her when it comes to competing with Judge Faulder, whose courtroom is as entertaining as SNL – and Judge Behnke, of course, a jurist of such nimble wit that even Faulder dares not joust with him – and you should have seen Judge Moorman conducting traffic court last week! By God, it was as good as The Master himself, Judge Leonard LaCasse, has ever done. Judge Moorman actually had people in the gallery applauding, as she told speeders and stop sign-runners, “Good heavens, no! Don’t ever give the government more than you absolutely have to! I’ll release the hold on your license and reduce the $300 late fee to $100, but there’s nothing I can do about the money you’ve already over-paid them.”
So Judge Dolan has her work cut out for her in the entertainment department. But consider this: She used to be called Olive Oyl (from the Popeye the Sailor cartoon), by her clients at the jail, and she confided to me that she even dressed as Olive Oyl for Halloween once or twice, so she has the best kind sense of humor. And she has a cartoon tattooed on her ankle.
Congratulations, Judge Dolan.