The Vanguard has a new home, please update your bookmarks to

Monday, July 21, 2008

Commentary: Back to Square One in Case Involving the Killing of a Yolo County Sheriff's Deputy

It was not surprising that a Sacramento court of appeal rejected the petition from the Yolo County Public Defender's Office. The public defender had asked the court to order the response of seven Yolo County judges to defense allegations that they could not hear the case because of apparent biases against the defendant.

It was a curious strategy from the start but perhaps was aimed to get information about the judges in order to seek a change of venue which seemed from the start the more logical course of action.

Here we are now, over a month after the death of Sheriff's Deputy Jose Diaz. And really not much has changed.

The case for change of venue seems so clear, so straightforward. The question has to be at this point what are we missing.

We know Diaz worked as a bailiff in Yolo County. We know that his colleagues in the Yolo County Sheriff's Office conduct the security. Any claims that they might have had that they could do their job in a professional and non-biased way, went by the wayside on June 18, when sheriff's deputies, under orders from someone that has not been identified in public, locked the doors of a county court building, preventing public access while filling the courtroom with fellow officers through a side door.

We also know that the Sheriff himself dismissed this as a mistake. This was no "mistake" in the sense that the doors were not accidentally locked. It was intentional.

There is also evidence it seems that Yolo County Judges put their court in recess in order to allow the Sheriff's Deputies to fill the court. What we do not know and has not been proven is that this action rose to the level of collusion as the defense has claimed.

Finally this has been the first major incident since Dave Rosenberg took over as presiding judge. As such, he has been quick to put blame on the Sheriff's Department and slow to step up with any kind of solution to the problem.

People keep wondering the same thing--why is Topete getting this kind of attention. There are two key points here. First, everyone is entitled to due process under the law.

The sixth amendment, which is not one of the amendments you normally see quoted in spaces like this, is very clear in terms of constitutional requirements in the right to a fair trial.
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State...
The second point is that really the constitutional issue of the right to a public trial is trumping the actual crime committed. Topete will get his day in court and in all likelihood will be convicted of his crime and sentenced to the appropriate punishment.

However, the bigger issue at stake extends beyond this somewhat simple case of man shooting officer of the law. It extend to the very foundations of our justice systwm. To the very core of the right to a public trial.

Why did the framer's specifically require trials to be public?

One of things that separates tyranny from democracy is the notion of transparency. The ideal that people will know the charges against them and not be held in some sort of Kafka-esque state of confusion. By forcing a public trial where the charges have to read against the defendant, the state itself has to answer for and support the deprivation of life, liberty, and property. The due process of law as spelled out both in the constitution and in 200-plus years of common law is what prevents the government from taking arbitrary action against defendants and thus protects us all from the potential for a tyrannical government.

That notion seems abstract and far-fetched today, but when the constitution was written it was a very real danger. Moreover, if you look over the history of this country, you will find shocking abuses through out.

In fact, this is precisely the type of case where you need such protections the most--where a perpetrator is accused of killing a law enforcement officer, someone that the law enforcement establishment is more likely to seek to protect.

Finally, this is big because once again it exposes the dark underbelly of our county government and its justice system. Once again people are forced to question those in charge and why business seems to be conducted in this manner on a consistent basis.

As we learned through this process, this is not the first time that this kind of "mistake" has occurred. And mistakes that repeat themselves are hardly mistakes anymore.

So you will forgive me as we demand that our justice system acts appropriately. You will forgive me if I revisit this issue yet again all the while transferring the attention from the crime allegedly committed by Mr. Topete to the abuse allegedly committed within our justice system.

At the end of the day, we will unfortunately survive the common street crimes of Mr. Topete far better than we could ever survive a justice system that has run amuck with favoritism, cronyism, and the random violation of constitutional rights. I am not saying that these things occurred, only suggesting that those are my top priority to prevent. We have ways to deal with street crime. The latter is far more insidious.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting