Last week the mainstream media's echo chamber reverberated with a story out of Oklahoma about an elderly white volunteer cop who shot a black man down. The geriatric law enforcer said he thought he was tazing his victim, not murdering him.
A not quite elderly wannabe cop from Crescent City rode into Ukiah where he called a black homeless man a dirtbag. The Crescent City wannabe said he'd seen the black “dirtbag” peddling dope out of his car, which prompted him to alert the real cops at the Ukiah Police Department, and soon the black “dirtbag” was under arrest.
The indignation emanating from the Office of the Mendocino County Public Defender was almost palpable. Michael Brown, the alleged “dirtbag” didn't seem any less hygienic than anyone else in the courtroom, but his hygiene wasn't on trial. Neither was his race, strictly speaking, but the Public Defender went all out to defend him with an energy white dirtbags seldom merit.
The Crescent City wannabe was what’s called a Level One Reserve Deputy, something like a Community Service Officer, and he had the additional misfortune of being named McNamara — a liability in this region of old hippies who remember Robert McNamara in the same bleak, unflattering light that an older generation remembers Hermann Goering.
Mr. McNamara of Crescent City, a kind of dirtbag transit point between California and Oregon, was chary to admit he’d called Mr. Brown a dirtbag, and said he had no recollection of dishing out that featherweight insult.
“I thought I had referred to him as ‘the subject’ — which is the standard practice and procedure. But,” the old Rotarian admitted, “if that’s what it said on the dispatch transcript, I guess I must have said it.”
The PC quotient of this case was absolutely thrilling. Black defendant, Crescent City cracker calling black defendant a dirtbag. Ms. Public Defender herself rolled for this one. Linda Thompson assigned her top defense advocate, Carly Dolan, to the mighty matter of The People vs. Brown. And that’s not all. The Public Defender also assigned the shiny new addition to her office, Anthony Adams, to Brown’s defense. I asked the Public Defender why Adams was on the case when she dropped by the courtroom one day to see how her tag-team was doing.
“Why did you put two lawyers on this case, Ms. Thompson?”
“Anthony has a future with our office,” she said, a positively maternal pride in her voice.
“But Carly Dolan's your best lawyer — isn’t she?”
“She is, and I wanted Anthony to work with her for that reason.”
Ms. Thompson sat back to enjoy the show, her stars positioned center stage for a case “to die for,” if any libs had been around to savor it.
Mr. and Mrs. McNamara, devoted Rotarians, had driven down to Ukiah for a Rotary event of considerable importance to them. On April 6th they'd arrived early from CC, the jewel of Del Norte County, where they instinctively sought out the most Crescent City-like venue they could find, and were soon pounding down negative food value viands at Jack in the Box on Airport Park Boulevard, a high cal breakfast, ala fresca, as they say in Rome. It was just like being in Crescent City without the sea air.
Mr. McNamara, professionally vigilant as a reserve cop, couldn't help but notice the comings and goings to and from a Ford Explorer in the vast parking lot between QuestMart and WalMart, Ukiah’s travesty of Eureka’s Devil’s Playground; which is to say, where homeless, non-Rotarian types hang out and make their, um, livelihood, such as it is. The Crescent City visitor phoned it in, and official Ukiah was soon on-scene.
The subsequent search of Michael Brown’s Explorer/home — he was living in his car, as well as doing free enterprise out of it — turned up several little zipbags of methamphetamine and others of cocaine, ready to go and handily accessible from a potato chip bag on the seat. A wadded-up napkin had been cannily stuffed into the chip bag to conceal the drugs. The chip bag, you see, just might be trash and just might also fool the cops. If the cops were born yesterday, which they weren't.
Additionally, Brown had $993 in his wallet. Your average dirtbag is lucky to have three bucks in his pocket. There were more of the little zipbags — what law enforcement calls “packaging material” — under the passenger seat. Putting five and five together, the cops deduced that Mr. Brown was selling Class One narcotics to the self-medicating.
In her opening remarks, Ms. Dolan said that Mr. Brown got the money from the two jobs he worked, and that he was highly regarded by security officers and other employees at WalMart who considered him a model of responsibility who provided a good example for the fluid homeless community headquartered at the WalMart parking lot.
Dolan said that one of the persons who came over to Brown’s vehicle may well have put the potato chip bag in the Explorer, and the State’s case against her client, all in all, was highly circumstantial.
Deputy DA Josh Rosenfeld prosecuted the case. He called Mr. McNamara first; then the responding officer, Joseph Thiel, then Officer Maldonado, and finally veteran Sergeant Cedric Crook. At the end of the day, last Tuesday, the prosecution rested. Judge Ann Moorman was about to send the jury home for the day but they wanted to stay and get it over with. Three or four jurors had their hands up, waving for attention, which didn't seem a good omen for the defense.
“Yes, what is it?”
“We’re ready. Can we have the case now?”
Judge Moorman seemed surprised. After all the lengthy directions to these people that they must consider the defendant innocent until proven guilty, here they were clamoring for a rope when they hadn’t even heard a word from the defense.
“No!” Judge Moorman said with desperate emphasis. “You have to hear the defense. They should finish sometime tomorrow, and there will be a few more instructions.”
(Jury instructions are totally nuts. Endless, confusing, crazy in the context. Juries are almost always reasonable, conscientious. The so-called instructions read off by the judge are a waste of everyone's time.)
The rookie public defender Adams did the closing arguments for the defense. He deployed a professionally done power-point slide show to show the jury that the prosecution was relying on purely circumstantial evidence to make Brown's life miserable. An inconsistency in McNamara’s testimony was key, Adams said.
The jury looked on astonished. Reality was being turned on its head.
McNamara, you see, had said on the stand that five individuals came to Brown's Explorer and engaged the defendant in sleights of hand. But the police report said that McNamara had only mentioned three visitors to Brown's irresistable van. Then McNamara, having left the scene for his Rotary rituals, had called back to see if the Ukiah PD had busted the “dirtbag” — Adams’ client, Mr. Brown. The pejorative "dirtbag" showed a predisposition to think the worst of Brown and even leap to the conclusion that Brown was a dope dealer. McNamara said he was sure he saw Brown hand a clear plastic film container or a rolled-up zipbag — something like that — to a guy on a bicycle — not one of the little one-inch-by-one-inch bags that were in evidence.
Another contention of this niggling, irrelevant defense was that the potato chip bag had not been fingerprinted. Nor had any of the other zipbags. Defense’s contention, as it often is, was that the police were reluctant to get fingerprints because it could prove to be exculpating, and therefore contrary to their unrelenting Blue Meanie interests.
Fact is, fingerprints have to be sent to the Department of Justice lab in Eureka. The backlog up there is long, so only major crimes are worth the time and trouble and expense of a quick turn around. A guy dealing dope out of a WalMart parking lot is not a high techno-priority.
(A homeless kid I know about had to wait eight months until he was cleared by fingerprints on a stolen BB gun. Of course his food stamps were suspended for that length of time, and by the time he got them back his teeth had been knocked out for begging on the street so he couldn't eat much anyway.)
Rosenfeld asked Sergeant Crook why the potato chip bag and the zipbags hadn’t been fingerprinted. “I didn’t think of it,” Crook answered.
Adams brandished a cartoon (!) of a sad little fellow in a yellow raincoat and rubber boots standing in a puddle. “This is my favorite little guy,” Adams said. And indeed what followed was the courtroom cliché that just because somebody comes in with a wet raincoat it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s raining outside. “What if,” Adams said, “this little guy was a gardener, and had just come in from working on a broken sprinkler system, eh? Wouldn’t that explain the wet raincoat, the puddle at his feet?”
Adams paused to let his zinger soak in, if you will.
Sergeant Crook had been asked on cross if he arrested all the people in the WalMart parking lot who had been observed making hand-to-hand exchanges. Crook, who seems to have a nice sense of the absurd, said, “If they had been selling Girl Scout cookies, yes, that would have been different.”
“Remember the instructions the judge gave you,” public defender Adams cautioned the impatient jurors: “If there is a reasonable alternative to the prosecution’s assertions, then you must choose the alternate possibility and acquit. And in this case you must find my client Not Guilty. Thank you for your time and service.”
Prosecutor Rosenfeld dismissed the slide show with the deprecating comment that he didn’t need such fancy tech visuals to make his case.
“It doesn’t matter whether it was three or five people who came up to the defendant’s vehicle,” Rosenfeld said. “And it doesn’t matter what it looked like was being handed out, because the evidence was all in the Ford Explorer. And when the evidence is on the side of the prosecution, the only thing defense can do is beat up on the police — that’s why we have to hear this business about why didn’t they get the potato chip bag fingerprinted. Well, they didn’t get it fingerprinted because it wasn’t necessary, ladies and gentlemen. The evidence was already sufficient to prove that the defendant, Mr. Brown was selling drugs.”
The jury came back within an hour with guilty verdicts against Mr. Brown for sales of meth and coke.
* * *
Another case seemed even sillier. It involved the Robbins brothers, Jared and Charles. The Robbins boys live just off Mountain View Road near Manchester. They had an ongoing indoor grow. Their PG&E bill — which otherwise would have been stupendous —was being defrayed under PG&E’s CARE program (California Alternative Rates for Energy) for low income customers.
Low income? These guys had 351 plants, 80 pounds of processed bud, $84,000 in $20 bills, 2,400 twenties neatly stacked in an Amazon.com shipping box. There was a nickel-plated .357 Ruger revolver, a .40 cal. Glock, a .22 pistol, a 12 gauge shotgun, two SKS assault rifles with banana clips and folding bayonets, another $8,000 in $100 bills in the pocket of a leather jacket, and not to mention bank statements for another $20k in Charley’s name, a paramedic at Coast Hospital.
The Robbins boys had turkey bags, scales, dry rooms — everything but 215 cards. You wouldn't have to be a cop to conclude that the two young entrepreneurs were in the love drug business.
The PG&E bill was in some guy’s name who had lost his wallet at a concert in Santa Rosa: The bill was being sent to a PO Box in Mendocino, which Charley and Jared had the keys to. The kid who lost his driver’s license is currently in the custody of the Department of Corrections, and when he isn't in custody he lives with his parents.
The Robbins brothers have hired hotshot pot lawyers Jeffery Schwartz and Omar Figueroa. On Friday Mr. Figueroa said, with a straight face, “It may take a while… I don’t think we’ll get through the prelim this week.”
Deputy DA Timothy Stoen from Fort Bragg is prosecuting the Robbins brothers, and Deputy Jonathon is the investigating officer.
But, hey, these guys are innocent until proven guilty — let’s not jump to any conclusions until after the trial.