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Scary Story Deuce

All the defense had to do was stipulate, a fancy word for 'admit,' to the prior DUIs in the Joan Rainville case and make the prosecution prove Rainville had assaulted two unharmed persons, neither of whom were injured — one had even slept through the assault. By conceding the priors, the prosecution could not have used them to decorate Joan Rainville's trial the way they did, dragging up in detail Joan Rainville's long history of vehicular roulette.

But these stipulations were not made, and out tumbled the skeletons from Joan Rainville’s closet, complete with an eerie soundtrack from witnesses exhumed specially for her trial.

Assistent DA Paul Sequiera, like any good lawyer, is a formidable actor. The courtroom was often visited by idle lawyers who popped by to watch the widely and justly lauded pro in action. During a lull in the proceedings, one of ‘em, a punster with a knack for riddles, asked a clutch of us reporters: “Why is the District Attorney’s Office like a corduroy pillow?”

“I dunno, why?”

“They both make lots of headlines.”

Ms. Rainville and her lawyer, public defender Andrew Higgins, had never even considered fighting the DUI charges against her. She was guilty of driving under the influence and had a well-documented history of driving drunk. But the more serious charges, felony assault with a deadly weapon, two counts, one against a pretty young woman and the other against a small boy, had occurred when Joan Rainville had plowed through a backyard fence narrowly missing the pretty young woman and coming to rest against the bedroom wall where the small boy was sleeping. Neither had been injured, and there had certainly been no intent to harm them since Joan Rainville did not know them, but here she was looking at charges that could put her in state prison.

Public defender Higgins saw all this coming and told the jury as much in his opening statement.“Mr. Sequiera is trying to make this whole case sound more dramatic by the language he uses; he is trying to evoke your passions and feelings, ladies and gentlemen, more than present the facts. So I would ask you to keep an open mind until you’ve heard all the facts, and remember that Ms. Rainville is presumed innocent until proven otherwise.”

“On a dark night in San Francisco,” Sequiera began dramatically, having asked the bailiff to turn down the lights (ostensibly, to make the pictures on the screen easier to examine — but the effect was nonetheless as dramatic as stage-lighting), “the defendant started her saga of boozing and driving, a career that has encompassed decades of incredible danger to the public, and as the evidence will show, no one and nothing can stop her from drinking and driving. At 8:58 that evening she was driving without her lights on and ran a red light. An officer was following her, and she was weaving all over the place, and when the officer pulls her over, she waits until he gets out of his patrol car, then speeds off. The officer pursued her with his partner shouting over the patrol vehicle’s PA system to pull over. But she keeps going on Ocean Avenue, and turns onto 19th Avenue, and just keeps going. Finally, the officers radio ahead and they set her up. A vehicle at the stoplight on 19th and Rivera is told to stay put when the stoplight turns green, trapping her behind him at the light. But she won’t get out of her car, even with the officers banging on the window and ordering her out of the car. So they start to break out the windows. She revs her engine, backs up, and speeds off again. Finally, with 12 or more officers they finally get her stopped on 18th Avenue and still she won’t get out so they finish breaking out the windows to get her out… [paces a few beats] And guess what? She’s been boozing and she’s drunk. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, no one and no thing can keep the defendant, Joan Rainville from drinking and driving.” Deputy DA Sequiera went on to detail four more DUI violations, each one more appalling than the last, punctuating each with the same refrain, “No one and nothing can keep the defendant from drinking and driving."

In his turn, Mr. Higgins told the jury that Sequiera was intentionally choosing words to create the desired effect of portraying Joan Rainville as a vehicle-borne menace.

“He uses language with negative connotations, like saga, and booze, and drunk, rather than the proper legal terms such as priors, alcoholic beverage, and impaired.”

Unfortunately, Higgins was unable to deconstruct Sequiera’s exciting narrative beyond these meager linguistic quibbles. Sequiera has a highly engaging style. He is personable and friendly in an open, easy, down to earth way. He shuns technical legalese and uses the everyday spoken word, subtly blending shades of meaning. It’s all very well to complain that his diction lacks legal “appropriateness,” but the overall result is unpretentious and readily understood. What does the common juror care if he comes right out and says, “she was drunk” instead of “impaired”? The whole point is to spin out a story that makes sense, a story the jury can follow without trying to remember what certain fancy words mean.

Sequiera’s mastery at addressing a jury seemed impeccable, and his talent in this aspect of his game was surpassed and excelled only by the way he handled witnesses. Not only can he lead a horse to water, he can make even the stubbornest specimen drink! Think of a really good coach or teacher working with a favorite athlete or student. Leading a witness, putting words in his or her mouth, is an objectionable offense in court for a couple of very good reasons. Not only does it color the witness’s testimony by phrasing it in the prosecutor’s words, it also tempts him or her to agree to statements that are inaccurate. But Sequiera does it so well that we wonder, often and in vain it seems, why his impressive talent has not been brought to bear against grander defendants, for instance Dr. Peter Keegan, the only suspect in the homicide of his sweet wife of thirty years.

“May it please the court, ladies and gentlemen, The People call Judy Zumwalt to the stand. … Ms. Zumwalt, good morning. How ya feeelin’ today — a little nervous and maybe kinda like you’re on the spot, so to speak? That’s alright, it’s only natural. Anyone would. Relax. Now, you work in Fort Bragg as a"—

“Objection, leading.”

“Lemme just ask you then, Ms. Zumwalt, where do you work?”

“In Mendocino.”

“Ah, Mendocino!" Sequiera exclaimed as if suddenly overcome by a vision of the splendor of our county's Shangri-la. "And what do you do there?”

“I’m a housekeeper.”

Sequiera had used a podium to address the jury but the stage hands had removed that prop, and now he was capering affably in the bailiwick, his every phrase complemented by the demonstrative gestures of a mime, rolling his hand encouragingly as he framed his questions and elaborated on them, like reeling in a fish, rolling his eyes at the absurdity of a world that would bring such well-meaning folks into such a dismal drama. The prosecutor's smile alone spoke volumes of goodwill and bore eloquent testimony to his dentist.

“And so as a housekeeper, you were on your way to work on Lansing Street in Fort Bragg — I mean, in Mendocino — when you were on your way to work”—

“Objection, leading.”

“Well, just tell me what, if anything, happened on May 1st of 2005 — when you were going to work?”

Technically, Sequiera was still leading the witness by repeating the “when you were going to work” phrase. But Higgins picked up on a signal from the jury, indicated by frowns and impatient glances, that seemed to be saying, “Hey, what’s with all the  carping, dude?” So Higgins, not wanting the jury to get irritated with him, let the objection ride, and Sequiera reeled in more line: Having already hinted during opening statements that three or more cars nearly went off the Mendocino Headlands into the deep blue Pacific because Joan Rainville had come careening at them in her boozemobile, Sequiera  was now getting the scary details from one of the victims. The details were, of course, juicy. Ms. Zumwalt had been forced into a narrow turnout on the precipice, and saw a least two other vehicles take their chances between the devil and the deep blue sea. Zumwalt had proceed on to her office to get some cleaning supplies, and when she returned holy moly here comes Rainville’s car coasting out of the driveway, across Lansing Street and, had it not been for a big beautiful Monterey pine tree, the vehicle would have plunged over the headlands into the surf. The jury seemed to enjoy these facts, and Sequiera spiced them up with factoids that were really neither here nor there as far as the “assault with a deadly weapon” charges were concerned.

On cross Higgins asked, “Did you actually see Ms. Rainville at the wheel?”

“No, but I knew it was her car.”

“That’s all I have for this witness. Thank you, Ms. Zumwalt.”

Next up was Officer Kevin Murray of the Ukiah PD. Again the lights were turned down to set the mood and enhance the picture on the screen: Ms. Rainville’s car crunched into the trunk of a Cadillac, and a blue-haired couple looking dazed and rubbing their necks. This was at Gobbi Street and State, not far from the theater. Murray had caught a couple of guys drag-racing when the light turned green, and was writing them tickets when — BANG! Rainville smacked into the Caddy at the same light. Murray ran over and asked Rainville what happened?

“The car came out of nowhere,” Rainville explained. “I, uh, I mean it just suddenly slammed on the brakes…”

“Lady,” Murray said, “have you been drinking?”

“Only a small glass of wine.”

Upscale drunks always claim wine, the drunks you see on Cops say, "I only had a couple of beers, office-shur."

Sequiera next called first a woman, and then her husband, who had just encountered Rainville at the movie palace about a block away from where she rammed the Cadillac. Their stories matched, but their names didn’t: she was Ms. Lewis, and he was Mr. Lee. They couldn’t remember what the movie was, but they remembered the defendant. They both testified that Rainville had exited the theater so drunk she couldn’t stand. In fact, they said, she fell and hit her head, so they called 911. The husband tried to help Rainville to her feet but she cursed him and shoved him away, then staggered to the back of the theater parking lot — they were worried for her safety and went looking for her but never found her: She hadn't gone far, though, until she ass-ended the old folks in the Caddy just up the street.

Again, it was entrancing evidence, but where was it all going? She’d been duly convicted, jailed and fined for both of these episodes. Then we got to the present case, the most recent DUI, where the defendant drove her mother’s Camry through a fence and into the side of house. This one had occurred on the Westside of Ukiah. Mrs. Blair Carlson was called and told her story. Blair and her husband Clay were having friends over for “porch night,” a porch night to remember. Ms. Carlson was talking to Brandy Dalzell on the patio when suddenly a car careened within a foot or two of  the chair Ms. Dalzell was sitting in, after having crashed through the backyard fence and jumped up onto the patio.

Ms. Dalzell was called. She agreed with Ms. Carlson on everything except the point at which Dalzell left the chair. Higgins made an issue of this on cross-examination, apparently to show that Dalzell wasn’t in all that much danger of being struck, but he never brought it up during his closing argument so all that came from it was to make Dalzell feel like she — or her friend — was being called a liar.

“So you say you were still sitting in the chair when the car came to rest against the house right next to you?”

“Yes. I could have reached out and touched it.”

“So, if someone else said that you left the chair when it got to the edge of the patio, would that person be incorrect?”

“I can’t say what that person would be,” Dalzell answered, obviously offended. “But I was still seated in the chair.”

“What did you do after you got up?”

“I went to check on the little boy who was sleeping in the room where the car hit the house.”

“Was he alright?”

“Yes. He was still sleeping.”

“That’s all, thank you.”

Dalzell left the courtroom looking like she'd like to slap Higgins one.

Officer Ross Lunceford was first to respond to the Porch Night Crash, but had handed the case over to Officer Anthony Delapo. Everyone agreed that Joan Rainville had changed the Carlson’s “porch night” into “hell night,” and the prosecution had run out of witnesses. So after some preliminaries outside the presence of the jury, Sequiera began his closing argument.

“May it please the court, ladies and gentlemen of the jury — and I just want to thank you all and commend you for your service here at this trial. You know, it’s one of the highest duties — other than serving your country — any citizen can perform. But it’s a privilege — and pretty humbling, too, if ya think about it. They sure don’t leave it to the lawyers — thank goodness — to do this! No, they leave it to you ladies and gentlemen…”

Having buttered and salted the jury, Sequiera asked for the lights to be turned off so Joan Rainville's presumably sober peers could better read the printed Power Point presentation Sequiera was putting up on the big screen monitor. He was back behind his podium and the whole scary story of defendant Rainville’s drunk driving record was reiterated, with the scariest parts highlighted on the screen. After an hour or so, Sequiera got to the point of the main charge, assault with a deadly weapon other than a firearm.

“When the defendant acted deliberately and willfully — doing something on purpose, that’s what we’re talking about here: She’s sitting in a car when she’s been drinking, and she knows by now that someone could get hurt if she drives… and that’s when we get to the next concept, the application of force. Doesn’t have to cause harm. Throw a punch and miss, it’s still assault. The People don’t have to prove the defendant intended to hurt anyone — take the example of someone who runs a red light; a reasonable person would know that someone could get hurt if you do that, and no one actually has to get hurt for it to be a violation. If you shoot at someone and miss, it’s still an assault. You can’t say, Hey, no one got hurt, so there’s no problem. And you can’t use voluntary intoxication as a defense to assault.

”If a person is deep into the bottle, can that person form anything resembling intent other than the intent to have another one?

Sequiera put his theme up on the big screen: “No harm, no foul?”

“No,” he said. “You set out to do this willful act, and you know someone could get hurt, and you do it anyway — do we have to wait until someone gets hurt, ‘til somebody maybe gets killed?”

As a matter of fact, that’s pretty much the way the law reads.

“What’s more dangerous to society, the guy who goes out to shoot someone — one victim — with a gun, or someone who drives a car like a weapon? That is what the People’s case is mostly about, and the reason we brought up all the priors, it wasn't to be unfair, but to show that the defendant had the knowledge that if she drove a car with booze on board someone could get hurt.”

Higgins in his turn reminded the jury that his client had never hurt anyone in her prior DUIs, and that they could only use them to evaluate her knowledge of the risk involved. He then went into a comparison of statistics concerning drinking and driving and compared the odds to buying lotto tickets. Higgins wasn’t very convincing as a defense advocate. Statistics is not a subject most jurors enjoy, and comparing drunk driving to lottery probabilities is nuts. Drunk drivers are far more likely to do harm than a lotto ticket buyer has of winning so much as five bucks.

“You have heard no evidence that driving under the influence will probably cause an accident. Or that it will probably cause an injury. No evidence.”

Excuse me Mr. Public Defender, but every day in America a large number of people are hurt or killed by someone driving under the influence. Those grisly stats are there for the googling. Higgins added that convicting his client on these charges would send a sobering message through the alcoholic beverage industry so chilling that nobody who had even taken a sip of wine at a tasting room and spit it out and dare get in a car for fear of facing similar charges. “Even someone sitting in this courtroom,” Higgins concluded, with a Javert-like look at each juror.

“That was a cheap emotional trick,” Sequiera hooted in rebuttal. Funny as hell, too, looked at as theater.

(The alcohol beverage industry would sell booze to pre-schoolers if they could get away with it.)

“Ya know what, ladies and gentlemen, if she [Rainville] wants to put the bottle to her head and pull the trigger, that’s up to her," Sequiera said, creating one of the more unlikely metaphors heard recently in a Ukiah courtroom. "But she can’t point it at all of us, and spray it all around, and say that’s okay, no harm no foul.”

Higgins, of course, didn’t get to rebut.

The case was turned over to the jury and, by mid-morning Monday, Joan Rainville, the bright and charming former clerk at the Mendocino Book Company, had been found guilty and had been booked into the Mendocino County Jail on charges of assault with a deadly weapon other than a firearm, a felony; DUI with priors, a felony; DUI, a misdemeanor.


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