Joseph Gates was acquitted last Wednesday of assault with a deadly weapon, a knife, against his own dear old dad, an anthropologist for the California Energy Commission, Thomas Gates, PhD. What Joseph Gates really did, as opposed to the patently false charges brought against him by his progenitor, was fail to live up to his big-shot father’s expectations; Joe was happy being a beer-swilling working-class guy, who never finished junior college, and that was a big disappointment to Dr. Thomas Gates.
What proved even a greater disappointment to Dr. Gates was how well Public Defender Jeffrey Aaron presented this novel defense and how expertly he (Aaron) dismantled Dr. Gates’s false narrative on cross-examination — Dr. Gates being an expert witness, and having been on witness stands many times professionally. The doctor must have been amazed and at the same time devastated at how pitifully small his skill as a witness actually proved to be, and at how thoroughly Mr. Aaron took him apart.
The false narrative, as presented by Deputy DA Joe Guzman, went something like this: Young Joe Gates and his girlfriend Caitlyn Green left home in Eureka and went to the family cabins near Dos Rios for the Fourth of July weekend of 2017; Joe started downing the brewskis — “he must have had at least three beers” — so his girlfriend put her foot down and Joe went away to the other cabin. When he came back, it was obvious to Ms. Green that he (Joe) had kept on drinking, and now she (Caitlyn) was very upset, so Joe was sent away again.
Then Joe’s parents arrived from Sacramento and found poor Caitlyn in tears, sobbing over the beer Joe had drunk — the anthropologist would make his distaste for beer drinking as clear as Caitlyn’s own abhorrence of the evil stuff. So, Dr. Gates took command of the situation, sent the poor defenseless women “down below” to a place of safety, while he went out to confront his wildly drunken maniac of a son, and when he did the son pulled a knife and said, “I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you,” then lunged at the father, chased him around the truck, smashed the windshield out of the Jeep, rammed the Jeep with his Dodge Ram, and finally drove off.
This is what the jury was expected to believe.
Deputy DA Guzman called his first witness, Caitlyn Green. She was nervous and it soon appeared that she was not an eager witness for the prosecution.
“Do you want to be here today?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Because you are concerned about what happens to your boyfriend?”
“Yes. Joe’s dad accused him of —”
“Objection, non-responsive, move to strike!”
The objection was sustained by Judge John Behnke and all but the “yes” was stricken. Ms. Green appeared stricken herself at being forced to help prosecute Joe, whom she’d been with for over five years, and whose beer drinking she felt capable of managing without the help of the courts, much less Joe’s meddlesome father.
“We got there the day before the, uh, ‘incident’ and woke up early; everything was fine, expecting the family to come any time. Joe started drinking about noon. I don’t really drink and Joe had got a large case of beer, 24 I think, but a lot, and we got into an argument about it. The drinking, for me, was always a problem and I was upset he was drinking so early, so he decided to leave and go to the grandparents’ cabin. He came back around three o’clock and obviously he’d been drinking more than three beers by then.”
“Is that a lot for him?”
“No, not really, he’s a big guy and it takes a lot, but he was intoxicated, so he obviously hadn’t stopped and I was very frustrated, wondering why am I even here, but I had no way to leave because we came in Joe’s truck and he didn’t want to take me home and the Jeep, the jeep had a cracked windshield, the seats were destroyed, Joe bought it from a friend at a very low price as they were trying to get rid of it and it wasn’t an option for me to drive it on the highway.”
The details about the jeep were examined to the point of tedium and by the time Joe’s parents arrived Joe was back at the other cabin, it was dark, and Caitlyn was “upset and crying because Joe was drunk.”
Joe’s mom, Jenny, was comforting Caitlyn in the kitchen. Dr. Gates, Joe’s father, was elsewhere, maybe unloading the car, Caitlyn wasn’t sure, but he wasn’t in the kitchen with Jenny and Caitlyn. Then Joe came driving up — his big Dodge could be heard approaching, and its headlights could seen from the cabin. Dr. Gates — “Tom,” as Caitlyn called him — went out and confronted Joe. Neither Caitlyn nor Jenny saw the confrontation. (Jenny, that is, Jennifer Gates, did not attend the trial for her son.)
On cross, we learned more about Doctor Tom than we did about Joe. Tom, in Caitlyn’s view, was a cool, if not coldly distant figure, given to controlling everyone in the family and something of a storyteller who tended to exaggerate his stories for dramatic effect, such as saying he saw a dead body floating by during a hurricane, and Jenny confided in Caitlyn that that wasn’t true. Caitlyn mentioned a few incidents of Dr. Tom ridiculing and trying to embarrass Joe in her presence.
Then Mr. Aaron asked if Joe had ever been violent with her?
“Did he ever hit you?”
“And you were estimating his beer drinking, weren’t you, not counting how many?”
It doesn’t change to counting until after the wedding; girlfriends may be content with estimates, but a wife will count every beer. “That’s four, now, Bruce. Are you going to drink the whole six-pack?”
Mr. Guzman called his star witness, Thomas Gates, PhD. In contrast to Caitlyn Green’s air of trepidation, Dr. Gates assumed the stand with the ease and assurance of long practice, the bearing of unshakable confidence.
“Do you want to be here today?”
“Want to see your son get into trouble?”
“Do you have any personal experience with knives?”
“But you know a butter knife from a hunting knife?”
Delving into the anthropologist’s knowledge of knives was a long and, except for the ludicrousness of it, tedious digression, but since Mr. Guzman didn’t really have a case (and was perhaps aware he didn’t) he had to say something, even if it was silly and boring. At first, Dr. Gates said it was a Buck knife, of which there are many models, most of them designed for hunting, and they all come with leather scabbards, or pouches for the ones that fold, so they can be worn on a belt. When asked to describe it the anthropologist held his forefingers apart, the way a guy does describing the fish that got away — that is to say, a distance that tended to vary, as though he were stretching a point, and not sure how much would be credible.
After some discussions between the lawyers and the judge, it was decided that the witness would draw the knife on a sheet of butcher paper on an easel. The knife he drew would have made Jim Bowie envious, hefty enough to take on a grizzly bear, with a wicked long blade ending in a drop-point, a hand-guard at the haft, and a handle substantial enough for a claymore sword.
“This is not to scale, of course,” Mr. Guzman hastened to explain in order to stifle the sense of amazement and incredulity that was rapidly spreading through the jury box.
“No-no, not at all,” the witness agreed. “It was a folding knife, a pocket knife, only about four inches.”
“The blade was four inches, or the knife overall?”
“The blade, the blade only, the handle was small, much smaller.”
“Do you remember the color?”
“It was black, the handle that is, was black.”
Mr. Guzman took his ballpoint pen out and showed the witness, asking, “Was it bigger than that?”
“No, not much bigger than that; that’s about the right size.”
It seemed Dr. Gates’s tendency to exaggerate had asserted itself, but other character traits had appeared as well; such as an annoying use of lawyerly diction and syntax, picked up from his job as an expert witness, such as when he described finding Caitlyn at the cabin.
Dr. Gates, we learned, had inherited the Dos Rios cabin from his wife Jenny’s parents and was annoyed to find “other people” there, meaning Caitlyn and his son, Joe. He complained about a broken beer bottle and spilled beer.
“Was anyone supposed to be there besides you?”
“No. My wife had mentioned something about them [Joe and Caitlyn] coming and I assumed they’d be staying there, but that hadn’t been figured out yet. We were trying to clean up but Caitlyn was distraught [a word only lawyers use] and sobbing uncontrollably. We were all in the kitchen trying to console Caitlyn, having a group hug, when we heard Joe’s truck outside. We decided that I would confront him [Joe] while they [Caitlyn and Jenny] went down below.
“I went out and confronted Joseph, he began to talk, saying he wanted to see Caitlyn. I told him she’s not going to see you, you are intoxicated.”
“Didn’t she say she didn’t want to see him?”
“Not really, but I inferred as much.”
“What happened next.”
“Did you in anyway threaten the defendant?”
“No. The closest I came to anything aggressive was I banged on the door below the window of the truck, and he said I’m tired of this, I’ve had enough, and reached for something between the seats — I thought he was going for a gun, but he came out with a knife.”
“What did you do?”
“I backed off four or five feet, thinking if it was a gun, I could get behind the Jeep, but then I saw it was a knife.” (Marines are taught, run from a knife, charge a gun.)
“How did you see that?”
“I don’t know, but I approached (only a lawyer says ‘approached,’ anyone else just walks back over) again to tell him to leave, enough of this, and then I saw him come back with the knife and slash at me with the knife — something you’d use to skin a deer with, a Buck knife, a pocket knife, nothing outrageous, probably legal to have…”
“Have you yourself ever used a hunting knife to skin a deer?”
“No, never, I don’t hunt [and by the tone and expression, he didn’t approve of his son hunting either].”
More discussion about the particulars of the knife ensued, the drawing of the Bowie knife on the butcher paper easel, then a recess was called.
On cross-examination Mr. Aaron started out with the baloney about not wanting to be there, and not wanting to see his son get into trouble.
“On a scale of one to ten, how bad do you want to be here?”
“About a seven.”
“And using the same scale, how badly do you want to see your son get into trouble?”
“A five, I would say, depending on the sentencing.”
“So you do want to be here, but in terms of your son getting into trouble, you’re in the middle [unless you can control the sentencing]. Did you ever tell the prosecutor that?”
“The root of the problem is my son’s drinking…”
“Sir, if you didn’t understand the question I will be happy to repeat or rephrase it.”
“I never said I didn’t want to be here to Mr. Guzman.”
“So how did Mr. Guzman know?”
“I can only guess.”
“Now Caitlyn never told you she wanted to call the police, did she?”
“We decided, we all decided, it was what we had to do.”
“You and Jenifer decided to call the police, true or false?”
“And Jennifer did not come to court with you, did she?”
“Is there anyone who can corroborate your story that you and she decided to call the police?”
“So if Caitlyn said you were the only one who wanted to call the police she would be either lying or mistaken?”
And so it went, one thing after another, “we” always meant “me” when Thomas Gates, PhD talked about how they all decided it was best to prosecute his son for assault with a deadly weapon, a knife.
“As to the knife, you told the police at the time that he pulled it out of his pocket; and here today you told the jury that he pulled it out from between the seats … you told the police it had a green handle; and today you told the jury the handle was black … you told the DA you never threatened my client with a rock; you told the jury today that you just remembered picking up some rocks and saying ‘I’ll bash you’ didn’t you?”
“I’m getting very confused.”
“I don’t want you confused, Mr. Gates, I want you crystal clear, so let me show you the transcript before I ask you again.”
On and on it went. The broken beer bottle was a fiction, since Joe’s case of beer was all in cans, the spilled beer and the place being a mess was another exaggeration. Mr. Aaron contradicted everything Dr. Gates had said on the stand with something to the contrary he had told the investigators earlier. The doctor made a pretty complete ass of himself, but as a “professional” — an expert witness for the State of California — he managed to hide his folly, from himself, at least. To the jury it turned out to have been glaring.
The District Attorney soon issued the following brief press release without much fanfare:
A Mendocino County Superior Court jury returned from its deliberations Wednesday to find the trial defendant not guilty of the single felony charge. Joseph Bjorklund Gates, age 33, of Eureka, was found not guilty of an assault with a deadly weapon (knife) on his father in late June 2017. It was alleged that the interaction at issue occurred in the Laytonville area of Mendocino County.”