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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Commentary: Report on Yolo County Court Incident Leaves Much Unanswered

On Monday, a report was released that attempted to explain how it came to be that the Yolo County court building's doors were locked in an apparent effort to keep media and the general public from witnessing the arraignment of a suspect charged with killing a Sheriff's deputy on June 15.

Court Executive Officer Jim Perry issued a statement from Yolo Superior Court Presiding Judge David Rosenberg.
"In criminal proceedings, our courtrooms must, should and will operate open to the public, with appropriate security to ensure the safety of courtroom personnel and the public. The Court necessarily relies on the Yolo County Sheriff to ensure public access and to provide oversight of security to the Courthouse and courtrooms. The conclusion of this report is that the Yolo County Sheriffs Office committed two errors: (1) failure, after lunch, to ensure that the public entrance door to Department 9 was unlocked thereby denying entry to a criminal arraignment to waiting members of the public, press and family members of the defendant; (2) allowing, via side doors, members of law enforcement, as spectators, preferential entry to Department 9."
Notice that the blame gets placed squarely by the Sheriff's department. Judge Rosenberg writes:
"These failures by the Sheriffs Office are not acceptable to the Court."
At the same time that Judge Rosenberg citing the report puts blame on the Sheriff's department, he fails to acknowledge any blame he himself has in the handling the matter. Moreover he told the Sacramento Bee that he "lacked authority to take action against the deputies involved."
""They're not my employees," he said. "The ball is in the sheriff's court right now.

"I do believe the sheriff will take the appropriate action. Ed Prieto's a decent man and takes his job seriously. I trust he will do the right thing.""
Thus Judge Rosenberg basically throws the mess in the lap of Sheriff Ed Prieto. Sheriff Prieto has just lost one of his men and any criticism of his actions must necessarily be weighed against the enormity of that burden. Nevertheless, his response has been less than satisfactory as well.

On Tuesday, according again to the Sacramento Bee, Sheriff Prieto repeated the assertion that the closure of the hearing was an honest mistake and said he has no intention of punishing or reassigning the courthouse deputies responsible.

Again, I understand the strain that his department is under, but the term honest mistake does not ring true here. This was in many ways a deliberate act. They locked the public entrance door to the court room denying access to specific people notably the press and family members of the defendant. In the meantime, they allowed entrance to members of law enforcement and the victim's family. How is that anything but a deliberate act? The claim just does not ring true.

The Sacramento Bee editorial this morning writes:
"Deputies told investigators that they "just plain forgot" to unlock the doors. But as The Sacramento Bee's Hudson Sangree reports, there is a pattern here. Members of the public were regularly elbowed aside in favor of law enforcement officers during a recent capital trial involving a CHP officer murdered in Yolo. At other hearings involving a dentist accused of fondling his patients, the court held the proceeding earlier than it was scheduled, and at a second, failed to post the schedule at all."
Even if the claim that this was an honest mistake is true, perhaps this suggests that the Yolo County Sheriff's Department is too emotionally attached to this case to properly and professionally perform their duties. Perhaps this case needs to be moved to another jurisdiction. Last night on the Vanguard radio show, the two guests disagreed as to the feasibility of this. With Peter Scheer from the California First Amendment Coalition suggesting that this would not merit a move, but Natasha Mintzger a death penalty specialist with the ACLU suggesting the violation might suggest that the defendant would be able to get a fair trial.

However, this kind of benefit of the doubt really is strained by the history of not only similar incidents, but of mistakes that are skewed in one way or another to provide preference to one side over another. In the case of the accused dentist, it was the defense that was granted preferential access. In this case it was the victim and prosecution.

The biggest concern by far in this case is that no one seems to be stepping up and saying it is my fault, here is what we are going to do, and here is why it will not happen in the future. Instead you have both Judge Rosenberg and Sheriff Prieto making vague but nondescript promises that this will not happen again. Judge Rosenberg has to this point not taken any responsibility for the mistakes and has instead placed them on the Sheriff's Office. The Sheriff has called them "honest mistakes" which again does not ring true, has stated he will not discipline those responsible, and has instead issued a blanked insurance that from now on, access to the court will be open and fair. But how do we get to that point? What assurances does the public have?

Transparency and accountability in government demands that someone take a far greater measure of responsibility than they have so far. Someone needs to step up and tells us why this will never occur again. There needs to be someone making a genuine and heartfelt apology.

The worst part of this incident is that we are talking about this at all. We have a young Sheriff's Deputy who was brutally murdered a week and a half ago. He was a single father of three who was due to be married in August to a single mother of five. Because of the actions of this Deputy's former colleagues, instead of focusing on the tragedy that everyone agrees on, we are dealing with the abstraction of court proceedings and the right to a fair trial by the defendant.

It seems to us that the defendant needs to be arraigned again in an open courtroom to insure that down the line this case does not get reversed on a technicality--a technicality that has nothing to do with his guilt or innocence but rather to do with mistakes made by those involved in the criminal justice system. The best way to insure justice in this case would then be to move it to another county, where there will be no lingering doubts about conflicts of interest, about preferential treatment, and the only question will be the facts that will either convict or exonerate this individual charged with committed a horrible crime.

--Doug Paul Davis reporting