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Monday, April 07, 2008

Commentary: Serena Case Continues to Illustrate Problems with Yolo County Justice System

This past weekend Former Yolo County Housing Authority Director David Serena was back in Yolo County, this time to join with friends and supporters in celebration after having 19 felony charges of theft and fraud dismissed last month in Yolo County.

It was just the latest blow to the Yolo County District Attorney's Office. Tomorrow, the Gang Injunction Hearings resume and Rick Gore is expected to take the stand yet again, almost a month to the date after he fired off an angry letter. Since that point, case after case has come to our attention. During the course of this week, the Vanguard may report on several of the more disturbing ones to reach our radar. There is little doubt that the Yolo County District Attorney's Office has literally ruined people's lives over what should have been minor incidents or even cases where the individual was innocent completely.

Fortunately for David Serena he had the resources and the legal team to fight the charges. He is now planning a lawsuit against the grand jury for harassment.

A good article came out in the Monterey Herald a few weeks ago on the Serena Case.
"David Serena, a long-time Salinas activist and former Hartnell College trustee, used the 1987 book "Gringo Justice" by Alfredo Mirandé when he taught Chicano studies at Cal-State Northridge. In the book, Mirandé explores a theory called "mobilization of bias," which he describes as an orchestration by politicians, the courts, the media, and the police to present a negative image of Chicanos, resulting in a double standard of justice.

So when Serena was charged with 19 felony counts of fraud and theft — charges he was recently cleared of — he said he felt subject to the same phenomenon Mirandé described.

"I never thought I would be in that position," Serena said Monday. "I was publicly lynched, found guilty without a trial. You know you didn't do anything wrong, that this is absurd, ludicrous; and you also know that in the history of Chicanos, a lot of them were unjustly accused for political retaliation. And you realize it can happen to you."
The charges in fact all stemmed from the claim that David Serena had illegally added his live-in girlfriend's two children to his medical insurance.
The district attorney said Serena had included his girlfriend in his health insurance even though he wasn't married. His assistant later declared under oath that she'd been the one to check the "married" box, based on a false assumption. Because his girlfriend's two children lived in his household, Serena said insurance rules allowed him to include them in his coverage.

After two days of testimony at a preliminary hearing earlier this year, Judge Richard Kossow wrote on March 15 that he found no evidence that Serena was not entitled to add the children to his employee dental and health insurance.

"The court does not find reasonable cause to believe the defendant did anything false to induce the governmental agencies and business entities to provide that coverage," Kossow wrote. "
Serena claims in the Monterey Herald article and he claimed to me on the phone when I spoke to him a month ago that the charges stemmed for a protest involving the death of Juan Nieto who died after a police chase in 1999.
Serena's troubles began in 1999, when he took a job as head of Yolo County's housing authority. A few months into his tenure, a 23-year-old man died while in custody of Woodland police. Juan Nieto, 23, had been chased down by officers who wanted to arrest him for buying alcohol for two underage police decoys, and he died in a motel courtyard on Dec. 3, 1999, according to news reports.

Serena, who lived in Monterey County for decades, had been involved in the Chicano movement and was a key figure in high-profile political cases. He was a plaintiff in the lawsuit that forced district elections of judges in Monterey County, bringing Latinos to the bench for the first time.

In Yolo County, Serena said, community members asked him to help organize a rally after Nieto's death. He put together a 3-mile march that grew to about 500 people outside the Woodland Police Department's headquarters, he said, demanding an investigation.

The district attorney refused to investigate the matter, so Serena called on other agencies. Eventually, the incident was investigated at the federal level, and in 2002, the family settled for almost $300,000 for Nieto's death.

Serena believes that incident sparked a political persecution that lasted until he resigned from the Housing Authority in 2006.
According to Serena, soon after the Nieto case, the grand jury began to receive allegations of mismanagement and wrongdoing.
"Soon after his involvement in Nieto's case, the county's civil grand jury began receiving allegations of mismanagement and wrongdoing at the housing authority, prompting a six-year investigation lasting through six grand juries — until most of the charges were dismissed by a visiting judge in the 2006-07 report.

"I've looked at 20 or 30 reports, and it's outrageous that grand jury reports would have these kinds of factual mistakes," said Matt Gonzalez, former San Francisco county supervisor and Serena's attorney."
The repeated harassment by the grand jury led to a lawsuit against the grand jury at the time for discriminatory seating practices.
Each year his agency was investigated, Serena was asked about his qualifications and experience, because one of the claims was he was not qualified for the job. At some point, he said, he felt harassed. He began to question why there were very few minorities on the grand jury. The county is 30 percent Latino.

Then, in 2006, only a few days after he filed suit against the grand jury for not seating enough minorities, Serena was charged with the 19 felony counts. "

Although a federal judge threw out Serena's lawsuit against the Yolo County grand jury, Gonzalez calls it a partial victory.

"His lawsuit changed how they select the grand jury" in Yolo County, he said. "There's never going to be a disproportionate representation of Latinos again. Ultimately, we showed very disturbing patterns of lack of racial diversity."
After I published my initial account of David Serena's vindication, I received a series of emails and comments highlighting problems that Serena had in the YCHA. I would argue that to the extent that there were problems these should have been handled administratively not legally. To the extent that the Grand Jury and District Attorney's office sought legal redress, it seems odd that they were only able to find one aspect of his tenure that they could charge criminally, and that was based on particularly weak evidence. There is just little evidence that the insurance claims filed by a clerk erroneous should have been charged criminally. The DA was clearly looking for something to pin on him, but they also clearly did not have anything.

Sadly this happens all the time in Yolo County, few have the resources to hire a Gonzalez-Leigh to defend them.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting