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Keeping A Poor Man Down

Once they get you down, they never let up.

— Hemingway

* * *

“Why are you doing this to this poor man,” the Assistant Public Defender, Ms. Catherine Livingstone, gasped. She’d just looked over the DA’s final offer on her client’s case — 25 to life.

DA David Eyster, the picture of stern disapproval, stood with his arms folded high on his chest as he looked down at the supplicant.

“Because I can,” Eyster replied in a voice like Caesar about to slay random Gauls.

It was just possible to get 25-to-life for this guy by taking the strike offense and applying it creatively to the new charges, to stretch this latest crime to the limit. And Eyster wasn't being totally unreasonable. The poor man in question here is what used to be called an habitual. He's been arrested for this, that and the other thing many times.

Ms. Livingstone’s emphatic defeat caused her expression to go from hopeful to dismay. She gulped and tried to compose herself before speaking.

“But this is such a minor offense,” she said.

“Not to me, it isn’t,” Eyster said.

The court was waiting for a Ukiah City cop to come in off his beat and take the stand. Some of Ms. Livingstone’s fellow lawyers from the Public Defender’s office were acting out their disgust with DA Eyster, slamming down their files, throwing up their hands, snorting indignantly. The sense of injustice was contagious and others in the crowded courtroom became infected.

A man whispered to his wife, “It looks like the DA’s going to shaft that poor man sitting in the dock.”

The poor man in the dock was Kelvin *P. Kepa. He of course refused Eyster's offer of 25 to life. Mr. Kepa would take his case to a jury.

“He’s a gambler,” Eyster said. “Let him take his chances.”

Officer Ross Lunceford of the Ukiah Police Department came in and took the stand. Lunceford said that on February 14th Susan Abreu pulled into the Express Mart on South State Street. She took out her wallet and went in to pay for the gasoline she'd bought when Mr. Kepa appeared with his girlfriend, Pamela Brandon. The Kepa-Brandon couple were recognized by another patron, James Harnett, who had seen them often enough down at Plowshares.

As Mr. Harnett watched, Ms. Brandon got into Ms. Abreu’s vehicle and took the keys from the ignition, which she handed to poor Mr. Kepa and the couple stole off across State Street then east down Thomas Street. This is the story Harnett gave Officer Lunceford when Lunceford was called to the scene. And Harnett made a positive identification of both subjects from photo line-ups.

DA Eyster: “What was Ms. Abreu’s reaction when she came out of the Express Mart?”

Officer Lunceford: “She was frantic. All her most important keys were on that key ring; her house key, her storage unit keys, the key to her post office box, everything.”

DA Eyster: “Nothing further, at this time.”

Ms. Livingstone for the defense asked Officer Lunceford to draw the scene at the Express Mart, marking the vehicles involved in relation to the pumps. When he’d completed the drawing she asked him about the location of the surveillance cameras.

Lunceford: “They were too far away to make any positive determination of what happened.”

Livingstone: “Now, how high are these gas pumps.”

Lunceford: “I don’t know exactly. The normal height, I guess.”

Livingstone: “So at the time Ms. Brandon reached into the cab of Ms. Abreu’s vehicle—”

Lunceford: “She was in the cab, reaching for the ignition. That’s is what Mr. Harnett said.”

Livingstone: “Oh. Well. And he could see all this?”

Lunceford: “Yes, ma’am. That is what he said.”

Livingstone: “But we don’t know for certain whether he had a clear line of vision, do we.”

Lunceford: “No, ma’am, that we don’t.”

Livingstone: “Did Mr. Harnett tell you what happened next?”

Lunceford: “He did. He said Ms. Brandon handed the keys to Mr. Kepa and they crossed State Street and went east down Thomas Street.”

Livingstone: “Did you talk to Ms. Abreu?”

Lunceford: “I did, yes, ma’am.”

Livingstone: “And did she tell you she did not know Mr. Kepa or Ms. Brandon?”

Lunceford: “Yes, that’s correct.”

Livingstone: “No further questions.”

Poor Kepa’s probation officer, Sandra Plaza, was called. She said that Mr. Kepa was supposed to be in the Salvation Army’s residential treatment program for drug addicts, but that he’d walked away after a few weeks. Kepa had been sentenced to the rehab program, rather than prison. He had practically begged the court to give him “just one more chance,” to show that he really — really — was trying, that he could get his life turned around, the standard spiel.

Also, Ms. Plaza reported, Mr. Kepa had failed his most recent urine test and had quit reporting to Probation. Moreover, he had been ordered by the court to stay completely away from Ms. Pamela Brandon. Ms. Brandon was in the courtroom, anxiously wringing her hands, hoping to be re-united with lover boy.

A visiting judge, the Hon. Elmer King, had no notion of the usual Mendocino sense of letting the poor slide. He held poor Kelvin Kepa to answer. But you can’t keep a good Kepa down, and a lenient local judge and a local jury will probably give this poor man his fifteen hundredth chance to straighten up.

DA Eyster explained that poor Mr. Kepa was looking at 16 years due to his extensive record when he was given the chance to clean himself up at the Salvation Army’s charity rehab program. The new case of petty theft, with a prior, would be three years more, plus eight months; figure in the strike he had on his record, and Kepa was looking at a minimum of 25 years.

Eyster said: “Mr. Kepa told me he threw the keys into a field, which was a lie. I walked that field, back and forth, all afternoon, thinking that if I found the keys it would save Ms. Abreu a lot of grief and the expense of getting her locks changed and worrying whether Mr. Kepa might let himself into her house some night; or take her things from storage; or her vehicle; or check her mail whenever he wanted it. If I could have found the keys, I might have been more lenient.”

It just goes to show, you can’t keep a Kepa down, and is there another DA anywhere in the country who would have spent an afternoon personally looking for a citizen's keys?

* The P stands for Poor.

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