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The Accidental Criminal

Rodriguez
Rodriguez

“It was all a big accident,” Jaime Rodriguez, Jr. explained, and Rodriguez was right. It was the biggest accident two people could have, especially if one of them didn't live through it, which is what happened in this accident.

Judge John Behnke reluctantly agreed last month during a prelim for Rodriguez in the shooting death of an 11 year-old boy, Rodriguez's nephew, that Rodriguez had not intended to shoot the boy. Rodriguez is awaiting trial on that one, and now he's looking at another crime, a less lethal crime that's not an accident.

Rodriguez, 18, made essentially the same claim last week during a trial for first-degree burglary. He just happened to live in the house where a bunch of stolen stuff was found.

The loot — including another gun — from a break-in was found in Jaime Rodriguez, Sr.’s home, where Jr. (our defendant) lives with his father, his brother Jonathon, his sister Diana, and his girlfriend, Cameo Smith. None of the booty was in Jaime Jr.’s room, however, and he claimed he was just waking up from a nap when it was all being hauled in to the house. Later, he amended his story to: “It was there when I woke up.”

The burglary went down sometime over the holidays last winter. Raul Marin came home from visiting his mother and found that his door had been jimmied open and all his stuff gone. And he had a lot of stuff: two large screen TV sets, three wristwatches, a gold ring with a red stone, a gold chain with a gold coin, all his designer jeans, a collection of ball caps, pricey Air Jordan athletic shoes, a collection of knives, and a semi-automatic pistol. Some of these items, including a laptop computer, belonged to Marin’s roommate, Rodolfo Martinez, who had also left town for the holidays.

Mr. Marin’s residence at 2015 Burke Road, Ukiah, had been broken into with a butcher knife. The burglars had chipped away at the door casing with the knife to get at the latch and pry it open. The knife had been left at the scene.

When Deputy Orell Massey arrived to investigate the crime, he collected the knife for possible fingerprints: None were found, apparently. No surprise there and, as we’ve often seen, the cops don’t send everything at a crime scene to DOJ for latent prints (dusting for prints at the scene, as seen on TV, is more or less fictitious). Two reasons for this. First, there is an incredible backlog at the crime lab for capital offenses. Minor crimes like burglaries are unlikely to get forensic attention. Second, fingerprints (or the lack thereof*) are often more valuable to crafty defense lawyers than to honest prosecutors (*used as exculpatory evidence in acquittals, when all it means is the perp wore gloves).

Massey
Massey

The list of missing items was given to Deputy Massey, and Massey located most of the stolen items that same day. This comes from knowing the players, and after nearly 30 years patrolling the streets of Ukiah every criminal in town and beyond knows Deputy Massey, and criminals being criminals they seem to forget the acquaintance is reciprocal.

The imposing Massey, a fit former Marine who comes in at 6'5" and maintains a severe lack of sympathy for the law-breaking community, took the stand as soon as the jury was impaneled.

Deputy DA Jonathon Hopkins: “After speaking with Raul Marin, did you call Cameo Smith?”

Deputy Massey: “I did.”

Hopkins: “Where did you get her number?”

Massey: “From Mr. Marin.”

Hopkins: “What did you then do?”

Massey: “I drove to a trailer park at 2475 North State Street and went to a trailer-house at that address, Number 50.”

Hopkins: “Now, would you call this a trailer or a mobile home?”

Massey: “I would call it a trailer-house.”

Hopkins: “But was it a double-wide, a single-wide… what?”

Massey: “It was a trailer-house.”

Mr. Hopkins is a meticulous dresser and his scrupulousness tends to pervade his prosecutorial style as well. He paced along the jury box, turning smartly on his heel, taking another turn, wondering, we suspect, why his star witness was being so obtuse about the details of the trailer: “Yes, but was it the kind you tow?”

Massey: “It was a trailer-house. I don’t know what else to tell you. And sure, we all go where we’re told.”

Hopkins: “Do you remember anything at all about the trailer?”

Massey: “There was a man working outside.”

Hopkins: “Who was that?”

Massey: “Jaime Rodriguez, Sr.”

Hopkins: “Did you speak to this man?”

Massey: “I did.”

Hopkins: “Did you speak to anyone else?”

Massey: “I did.”

Hopkins: “Who was that?”

Cameo Smith
Cameo Smith

Massey: “Cameo Smith.”

Hopkins: “Where was she?”

Massey: “She came out of the trailer-house, and approached along a path.”

Hopkins: “Did Mr. Rodriguez give you permission to enter the trailer?”

Massey: “He did.”

At this point Massey described how he and Deputy Bobby Moore drew their weapons and made a security sweep through the trailer, where they soon discovered Jaime Jr. in bed, hiding under the blankets, fully clothed. His brother Jonathon and sister Diana were in the living room. Jaime was cuffed and brought in to join them.

Diana took Massey to her room and showed him one of the big screen TVs; the other was in Cameo’s room. Diana also produced one of the missing watches from her jewelry box. Diana then led Massey to the bathroom, and as she was extracting a packet from the cabinet below the sink, the missing pistol fell out. The gold chain was recovered, but the gold coin, called a “centenario,” and the gold ring were both gone. A bag of blue jeans and the hat collection, along with the laptop and the knife collection, were also found in the trailer. Only one of the Air Jordan shoes was found.

Massey called Mr. Marin who came to the scene and identified his stuff.

A recorded interview with Jaime, Jr. was played:

Deputy Massey’s voice: “Jaime, come here, I want to talk to you. Now, I know you and your girlfriend [Cameo] went over there and took this stuff, 'cause she already told me. [Pause] Okay, I gave you a chance to tell me the truth and you wouldn’t do it so now we gotta do this… [ratcheting sound of handcuffs] She held out as long as she could, but had to think of herself, you understand? Don’t be too hard on her.”

Deputy Moore: “Step up and do the right thing, son.”

At this point Jaime Jr. makes a full confession.

Judge John Behnke told the jurors that they were to disregard the comment that Ms. Cameo Smith had confessed to Deputy Massey.

“It’s just an investigative technique,” the judge explained the girl friend's immediate snitch off of her boy friend.

He might have added that Deputy Moore’s comment was another “investigative technique” to inspire the subject’s sense of duty toward his womenfolk.

Defense attorney Keith Faulder argued that the case rested on his client’s earlier, unrecorded, comment that he was just waking up when the stuff was being carried in. On cross, Faulder asked Massey if he was protecting others when he changed his story.

Faulder: “You said on direct that he first said he was just waking up when the stuff was being carried in, didn’t you?”

Massey: “I did.

Faulder: “Then what did you say?”

Massey: “I asked him who it was that was carrying the stuff in.”

Faulder: “Is that when he changed his story?”

Massey: “It is.”

Faulder: “Deputy Massey, do you know what a snitch is?”

Massey: “I do.”

Faulder: “Would you please tell the jury what a snitch is?”

Massey: “A snitch is somebody who contacts law enforcement secretly in order to report the names of perpetrators in criminal cases. These snitches are in a great deal of danger of being attacked, either while they’re out on the street, or when they subsequently wind up in the jail or, especially, in the prison system.”

Faulder: “Thank you, Deputy Massey.”

Faulder then asked Massey about all the things that could have been sent to the crime lab for fingerprints — he especially suggested it would have been helpful to send in the big screen TV, since it would obviously take two people to carry it, and therefore might exonerate his client. Massey didn’t offer any reason why the items — other than the knife used to jimmy the door — were not sent in to the crime lab.

Faulder: “Why did you draw your weapons when you and Deputy did a security sweep of number 50 at the Twin Palms trailer park on January 4th?”

Massey: “Because a firearm was among the items believed to have been taken.”

Faulder: “And you said you found my client in bed?”

Massey: “I did.”

Faulder: “Did you, at any time, point your weapon at my client?”

Massey: “I held my weapon at the ready, and ordered him to show his hands.”

Faulder: “Did you search my client?”

Massey: “I did what’s called a cursory search, to determine if he was carrying any weapons.”

Faulder: “Did you find any contraband — any of the stolen items — on my client?”

Massey: “I did not.”

Faulder: “You spoke with the neighbors at the residence on Burke Road?”

Massey: “I did.”

Faulder: “Did they tell you they saw my client at that residence, either on that night, or at any other time?”

Massey: “They did not.”

Faulder: “Did they report seeing a green van?”

Massey: “They saw a van, but it was too dark to tell what color it was. They said they thought it could have been green.”

Faulder: “Did you find a green van at the Twin Palms trailer park?”

Massey: “I did not.”

Faulder: “But you looked for one, didn’t you?”

Massey: “I did.”

Faulder: “Did you find any of the stolen items in my client’s bedroom?”

Massey: “I did not.”

“The evidence need not eliminate all possible doubt,” Deputy DA Hopkins told the jury in closing. “And don’t employ your imagination; that’s the wrong way to go about it. Use your reason, not your imagination. We must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Rodriguez entered a residence, an inhabited residence — and it doesn’t have to be inhabited at the time he entered it, for first-degree burglary. We have to prove he entered with intent to commit larceny — that means, to steal. But we don’t have to prove it beyond all possible or imaginary doubt.”

Hopkins left his lectern and wandered over to the witness stand where he filled a glass with water. He did this without interrupting his flow of speech.

“Now there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence in the People’s case,” he went on smoothly, referring to himself in the third person plural. “We are asking you to accept that, because you can’t start out thinking Oh, well, circumstantial evidence, that’s bad, can’t have that… lemme see, where was I… Oh, yes. You must accept only reasonable conclusions… [frowning down at his lapel and flicking with his fingers at a dribble of water on his suit] …when considering circumstantial evidence. But we also have the physical facts, the marks on the door, the butcher knife left sitting there, and — well, and then we have Mr. Rodriguez changing his story. First he was just waking up and they — this mysterious ‘they’ whoever ‘they’ are — and ‘they’ were carrying the stuff in. Then that all changes and now it’s, Well, when I awoke it was already there. He changed his story and that may be used by you to find him guilty.”

After paging through his legal pad, Hopkins resumed.

“Now, you are not to speculate why another person is not here, or who that person is or where they are now…”

Hopkins seemed to have lost his thread, and took up another line.

“Now, a person may be guilty of a crime in two ways. They may be a perpetrator of a crime or they may be an aider and abettor; that is someone who is a facilitator, someone who facilitates, instigates, or encourages a crime. Our position is that Mr. Rodriguez is not an aider and abettor. His claim is that his partner was the perpetrator and he was the aider and abettor. They both went in, they both took things. In the event you think aider and abettor is appropriate — and I assure you it is most certainly not appropriate — if you should believe Mr. Rodriguez had no clue what was going on, then all I can say is well…”

Hopkins gave the jurors such a scathingly risible look that he nearly laughed in their faces before he resumed.

“He knew why they were there. He knew exactly what was going on. The proof is beyond reasonable doubt and I expect you to find Mr. Rodriguez guilty as charged.”

Faulder began on a brighter note than the gloomy one Hopkins left on.

“There are things I agree with Mr. Hopkins about — quite a few things, actually. But the place for me to start is my client is accused of entering a residence with larceny in mind; the intent to steal. I agree with Mr. Hopkins that a burglary did occur. The question is whether or not my client did it. The neighbors saw a green van there on the night of the burglary. I think Mr. Hopkins proved that. But they didn’t see my client there, and Mr. Hopkins proved that as well. It’s obvious Cameo Smith committed this burglary, but I don’t know, and neither do you, ladies and gentlemen, that my client was even an aider and abettor, so I’m going to put that aside.”

Faulder chopped one palm with the blade of the other and said, “This is the crux of case — any case, really — whether it’s been proved beyond reasonable doubt. Mr. Hopkins said there was direct evidence that a knife was found, a knife, it was thought, had been used to break into the residence, and it had been collected and processed for fingerprints. But this evidence was never followed up on or presented as evidence. And he says you are not to speculate on why prosecution didn’t do that. But if my client’s prints were on that knife, I think it’s reasonable to conclude it would have been presented. Again, I agree with Mr. Hopkins. I agree this case is based mostly on circumstantial evidence. And since it is a circumstantial evidence case you have been given the instructions that if the evidence points to more than one reasonable conclusion for any set of circumstances you must select the one that points to innocence. The victims in this case Raul and Rodolfo, they’ve never seen my client — but they both knew Cameo and her friends. They had no previous knowledge of my client at all. And Cameo had to get a van from somebody — a green van was seen by the neighbors. The owner of that van is something you ought to consider — it’s not my client, he doesn’t even have a driver’s license. I think it’s fair to assume Cameo needed someone to help her, but remember Deputy Massey got Cameo’s phone number from Raul. And when Massey called her and said he was coming over, wouldn’t she have — if she were his crime partner — wouldn’t she have told Jaime? And given him time to get out of there?”

Faulder hammered away at the fact that none of the stolen items were in Jaime’s room or on his person, but it didn’t sink in. The jury came back after only about two hours with the dreaded Guilty verdict. This will go down as a felony strike for Rodriguez — first-degree burg always is. In the coming weeks, when Jaime goes to trial on the shooting death of the nephew, if he gets convicted on that he’ll have two strikes in his first year as an adult.

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