The Mendocino County medical examiner's credibility was called into serious question and the Mendocino County public defender was put on the stand over the possible bungling of a murder case, in an unusual all-day hearing in county Superior Court Friday.
At issue is whether Timothy Slade Elliott, 40, of Hopland, got a fair trial in 2010 and whether he deserves a new one. He claims his public defender, Linda Thompson, was ineffective legal counsel and deprived him of his right to a fair trial. Judge Richard Henderson denied the motion for a new trial at the time, and Elliott was sentenced to 16 years to life in prison.
An appellate attorney in September 2012 asked for a new trial based on "a prima facie case of ineffective assistance of trial counsel," according to a March 28 order from the First Appellate District Court, which directed the local court to re-examine the trial.
County contract medical examiner Dr. Jason Trent testified in Elliott's 2010 murder trial that a knife - the alleged murder weapon - placed in evidence could certainly have made the 6.7-inch stab wound that killed Samuel Brandon Billy in September, 2008.
In 2012, Trent changed his mind and in two sworn statements in Elliott's appeals process, said he thought the knife did not make the wound and that he had thought the knife blade in question was 3- to 4-inches, rather than the 1.65 inches it actually was.
But then at a hearing before Superior Court Judge Ann Moorman on Friday, Trent, who serves as the forensic pathologist for Mendocino and Lake counties, under questioning from Mendocino County Deputy District Attorney Paul Sequeira, said the knife in evidence, even though it measured 1.65 inches long, could have been the weapon that drove the 6.7-inch stab would into Billy.
A jury in August 2010 convicted Elliott of second-degree murder in the stabbing of Billy, 29, also of Hopland. The men, both members of the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians, allegedly fought at a party on tribal land early on the morning of Sept. 26, the Mendocino County District Attorney's Office stated previously. Elliott was reportedly seen delivering a blow to Billy's abdomen, and Billy staggered a few feet and collapsed in the parking lot with a stab wound. The only witness was a young boy who said he saw the crime out his window. The defense tried to discredit the boy, noting his family were friends of the victim and that the night was very dark.
In the morning, Trent was asked over and over about his inconsistent testimony. In his written change of heart in April 2012 (and again in September of 2012) he agreed with the defense's expert witness that the knife in evidence could not have made the stab wound.
"At trial, I was asked for my opinion of fellow pathologist Dr. Terri Haddix's conclusion that the knife in evidence could not, when fully inserted, inflict a six-inch deep wound," read the declaration from Trent, who performed the autopsy on Billy. "I testified to my belief that her conclusion was incorrect. My opinion was based, as I stated at trial, on the knife blade measuring between three to four inches long."
However, on Friday he said, "Indeed I do," when asked by Sequeira if, knowing absolutely that the knife in question was 1.65 inches long, he still believed that knife could have been the knife that caused the fatal wound.
Sequeira went to lengths - bringing out a standard wooden 12-inch ruler - to display to Trent the difference between a 3- or 3.5-inch knife blade and a 6.7-inch wound and the difference between a 1.65-inch blade to 6.7 inches. Nonetheless, Trent said he "absolutely" still believed that with enough force, the smaller blade could still do the damage.
Trent said it was important to remember that the blade in evidence had exactly the same blunt and sharp sides which matched the wound itself. He also said that the victim was somewhat overweight and that if pushed with force through soft tissue, the smaller knife was capable of inflicting the fatal wound.
Earlier in the day, Mendocino County Sheriff's Detective Andrew Whitaker testified that back in September of 2008 he had chatted with Trent about the knife in his office when the knife was on the detective's desk being photographed. At that time, Whitaker said, he and Trent discussed the relatively short blade, but not specifics and Trent said informally that he thought it could be the weapon. Because of that informal opinion, Whitaker said, he sent the knife - which had been turned over to authorities weeks after the stabbing incident - to the state Department of Justice for forensic testing, something he said he would not otherwise have done.
Elliott's court-appointed private attorney Jan Cole-Wilson on Friday asked Trent over and over how he could be so inconsistent.
"I was wrong; I don't know what else to tell you," he kept saying about the two sworn declarations he made in 2012 about the knife. He also could not remember most of what Cole-Wilson wanted to know, such as when he first saw the knife, if he saw the knife before the trial, what he testified to during trial.
She pointed out - and Trent agreed - that making serious mistakes in criminal trials could cost him his job. But when she implied that he was changing his testimony now for the benefit of the District Attorney's Office, he denied it.
"That's what I swore to, that's what I signed, but I was wrong," he said again, about recanting his trial testimony.
In the afternoon, Public Defender Linda Thompson was called to the stand to explain the things she did in her defense case for Elliott.
Sequeira - representing the DA's Office, which does not feel a new trial is necessary - took Thompson through her resumé and her years of criminal trial experience, and gave Thompson an opportunity to explain all the things she did to try to get an acquittal for Elliott.
"I still don't believe Mr. Elliott did it," she said of the case, adding that a large part of her problem putting together a case was that tribal members in Hopland - even those who were on Elliott's side - didn't want to get involved and would not talk to her.
That left physical evidence, and Thompson said she knew of the knife, which had appeared from what she considered a suspicious witness - another friend of the victim - so she hired a well-respected expert witness who concluded that the 1.65-inch knife blade could not have made the wound shown in the autopsy photos.
With that expert on her side, and the fact that the state DOJ found no evidence on the knife or Elliott's clothing, she felt she had a solid defense.
Before trial she did not know whether the prosecution planned to have Trent or anyone else testify about the knife.
And that's where she made a serious error, said Cole-Wilson, as she took over questioning Thompson.
According to Cole-Wilson, Thompson made three grave errors:
1. She did not ask the court for a special hearing on whether the knife could be excluded. The hearing would have given Thompson the opportunity to find out what the prosecution was going to say about the knife and that it planned to bring in Trent to testify. Thompson said she was sure she would not get presiding Judge Henderson to exclude the knife so she didn't try. And, she said, "I never believed anyone was going to argue that was the knife."
2. Cole-Wilson said Thompson should have cross-examined Trent on the stand at the trial about the size of the knife. Having just testified to a 3- to 4-inch knife making the wound, Thompson should have gotten up to point out that the knife was actually much smaller. Thompson said, however, that her experience with Trent was that he did not like to be contradicted on the stand and became "pompous" and "entrenched" when it happened. She said she was so sure of her expert's swaying the jury she did not call Trent's testimony into question.
3. Finally, Cole-Wilson said she didn't understand why Thompson did not raise the issue of the size and unlikely threat of such a small knife and Trent's conflict about the size during her closing argument. Thompson, with a sigh, answered, "I wasn't aware that I had not." She said after trial and during the appeals it was pointed out to her, but she had been focused on other parts of her defense at the time. "I have been wracking my brain about this case since I lost it," she said.
After the testimony, Moorman scheduled another hearing in August, instructing Sequeira and Cole-Wilson to write briefs explaining why a new trial should or should not be granted.
Before leaving the courtroom however, Moorman had a few words for Trent, who was no longer there.
"I intend to make some findings about Dr. Trent's credibility," she said. She noted that "under penalty of perjury" Dr. Trent had twice recanted his trial testimony and then "came to court today and under penalty of perjury gave equally emphatic testimony that his other sworn testimony was wrong.
"Dr. Trent's credibility is damaged," she concluded.