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Monday, June 23, 2008

Commentary: Yolo County Courts: Just Who is In Charge Here?

I keep coming back to this case from the Yolo County Courts mainly because there is more and more to talk about--and it becomes more alarming each time. We talked about the Davis Enterprise Op-Ed on Friday, it was a bit surprising to see the Enterprise admonish the Yolo County Courts, even on a case where they were deprived of access.

Hudson Sangree of the Sacramento Bee then had a piece yesterday that says much of the same thing in a newspaper article entitled "Yolo County has closed trials before the public."

Reading through that article one of the more interesting revelations comes from the Mark Anderson case--the Woodland dentist who was accused of fondling his female patients last October.

As Mr. Sangree describes it:
"Reporters waiting for the court's doors to open at 8:30 a.m. were surprised when defense attorney Michael Rothschild emerged, smiling, and said the proceeding was over."
In fact, there was a series of hearings that somehow the family of the accused attended but the relatives of the victims were never informed of, and the arraignment hearing was neither placed on the public calendar nor was there any other public notice.

The part that gets me is the next tidbit. These hearings were attended by Commission Janene Beronio (same person who attended last week's arraignment). When the Sacramento Bee tried to talk to Beronio, questions were referred to court Executive Officer Jim Lawyer.

When the Bee tried to talk to Jim Perry--he claimed that he could not comment about the Anderson hearings since he knew nothing about them.

So wait a second, who is in charge here? The Commissioner is refusing to talk and the guy in charge does not know anything about the hearings? That right there is scary. Who is running this show?

Who exactly is Jim Perry then? He is not a lawyer, but he does manage the court's operations.

It gets more interesting here.

Talking about the CHP trial, Jim Perry is quoted as saying:
"There were seats set aside for the media in the Stevens case. Everyone else stood in line, including law enforcement."
Not so says Hudson Sangree in his article.
"Reporters who covered the trial for weeks and stood in line say otherwise."
Mr. Sangree continues quoting Perry:
Perry also maintained that Wednesday's arraignment was public – as required by law – despite deputies' decision to prevent the defendant's family, the general public and media from attending by locking the courthouse doors.

"There was a great mistake, but the hearing stands as it was," Perry said. "Both sides, the public defender and the DA were in the courtroom. It was on the record."
Notice what Perry is now doing. On the one hand he is suggesting that the arraignment was public as required by law. On the other hand, he suggests this is a mistake, but by the same token, no laws were violated since the lawyers were in the room and a transcript is available.

Fortunately, Perry is not allowed to get away with this, at least not in the newspaper article. James Chadwick who is President of the California First Amendment Coalition and is a lawyer who represents the media was interviewed. He did not pull any punches either.

Mr. Chadwick calls Jim Perry's assertion:

"the worst kind of Orwellian doublespeak... It wasn't public if only the public that the deputy sheriffs wanted to allow in were allowed in. That's not what public means."

Yes, thank you Mr. Chadwick for calling it as you see it.

The article goes on to talk about how important it is that the arraignment is held in public. Peter Scheer also from California's First Amendment Coalition talked about the fact that in countries that do not have rules of law, they keep the public out of arraignments and such proceedings because "the initiation of criminal charges against people is arbitrary."

A mistake has been made, it does not appear to be the first time that a mistake has been made on this, heads will roll though? There will be consequences, right?

Apparently it is the Sheriff's responsibility to discipline his deputies for what happens in Yolo Court buildings.

And Sheriff Ed Prieto said that he would neither punish nor reassign those responsible for locking the public out. Nor will he identify them.

On the other hand, who does Jim Perry answer to? Is he the problem here or the scapegoat?

I get the fact that Ed Prieto just lost one of his deputies. Ed Prieto is understandably going through a very tough time. However, he is a professional, an elected public official, and he has a job to do. The public deserves a better accounting than it has gotten. Fine a mistake was made, fix it.

I have to ask again, who does Jim Perry answer to? Because it seems to me that he is dodging serious questions at least in the public realm.

All of this raises very serious issues for the Yolo County Courts. I think the accused in this case has the right to a change in venue where they can get perhaps a fairer trial. He may be guilty of everything, but he deserves at least the semblance of a transparent system.

Someone needs to seriously examine the Yolo County Court system. We have long questioned the prosecution aspect of it, but it appears the problems go beyond even that.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting