The August 12th sentencing of Joan Rainville, 54, was the most dramatic episode of the entire sensational series of Joan-related events, which began late last year when District Attorney David Eyster and Chief Prosecutor Paul Sequeira charged the popular Ukiah book store clerk with two counts of assault with a deadly weapon.
Deadly weapon? Did Joan suddenly throw down her reading glasses to do a Ukiah drive-by?
No, but she did do a drive-in.
Drunk on Memorial Day last year, Joan, who has a history of intoxicated locomotion, drove her mother’s Acura through a neighbor’s fence and on into their backyard barbecue.
Found guilty of the novel assault with a deadly weapon charge, the sentencing phase of Joan's conviction had been put over several times because the judicial system has become so saddled with solicited opinions of “helping professionals” that even a straightforward case — let alone one as complex and unusual as this — must necessarily include any number of psychiatric reports and probationary recommendations, all of which had to be read and studied by the judge before the case could be “appropriately” adjudicated.
And a lot of people were watching this one because lots of people know Joan and are fond of her, and when a lot of people are watching Lady Justice is extra-scrupulous.
While the end result of The People vs. Joan Rainville was predictable in a broad sense, at no point during the emotionally charged process was the outcome at all certain. It was so involved, in fact, that at one point the entire validity of our current judicial system — the envy of the world — was legitimately challenged.
Judge Moorman’s courtroom, the scene of the Joan drama, is a down-at-the-heels venue. Its ripped carpet is duct-taped, its ancient rows of folding theater seats are threadbare from years of grubby defendants hauled in from their lairs under bridges to answer “camping” charges that only the homeless themselves and the Ukiah PD pay much attention to. But the seedy forum was standing room only for Joan.
The expected sentence — probation with a threat of prison time as a theoretical spur to sobriety — was duly reported in the Press Democrat and the Ukiah Daily Journal last week. But these reports were taken almost verbatim from the DA’s press release, and contained nothing of the drama involved.
In fact, the DA’s press agent, Mike Geniella, having drafted this press release, didn’t even bother to equip himself with a notebook. He was, however, reserved a comfortable and prominent seat, so that his presence was conspicuous. I, on the other hand, was crowded up against the hallway door, and jostled by the coming and going of various interested parties, not to mention being exposed to the racket from the hallway, which made it difficult to hear the proceedings.
The victims of the two assault charges against Joan were a woman who had been comfortably seated in the victim backyard when Joan's mother's Acura plowed through the fence inches from her chair. An 8-year-old boy was asleep in the nearby house. The child’s slumbers were not disturbed, and to this day he probably has no idea, other than the court documents his parents may save for his maturity, that he'd been assaulted in the manger.
At about 11am Judge Moorman lugged the enormous Rainville file up to the bench and plonked it down. The reports and letters looked like several reams of bond paper had been used, and the manuscript for Gibbon’s The Rise And Fall of the Roman Empire couldn’t have been any more copious, or more thoroughly thumbed through, read, reread, revised, annotated, and rewritten. At the last moment, Rainville’s public defender, Andrew Higgins, submitted a final letter, this one written by Ms. Rainville herself, in pencil on several pages of lined paper, from the County Jail where she's been in custody for more than a year. Mr. Sequeira looked it over then handed it to Geniella, the DA's media liaison. Then it went to Judge Moorman, and on into what you might call The Life and Times of Joan Rainville.
“Mr. Higgins,” Judge Moorman asked, “are you ready to go forward?”
Higgins tried to restate his attempt to keep his client’s prior record, the highly inflammatory record of Ms. Rainville’s past DUIs, out of the trial, but he’d ineptly made that motion already, and Mr. Sequeira objected that it was all plowed ground, and it was time to get down to business. Moorman agreed, saying it had been “heavily litigated” already, and again she denied the motion, and again Higgins submitted. As we’ve noted before, had Higgins stipulated to Joan's priors (i.e., accepted them without dispute), the prosecution couldn't have brought them up during Joan's trial on her latest automotive adventure.
“What do you have to say, Mr. Higgins, before judgment is pronounced?”
Higgins had a three-day beard, his eyes were red and he’d slept, if he’d slept at all, on his hair so that it stuck out at odd angles. Then again, Mr. Higgins is a very fashionable fellow, and the stubble on his face and the hairdo may have been what the fashion magazines call the “studied casual” style, which is so much in vogue these days.
“The sheer volume of letters on my client’s behalf,” Higgins began, “shows, I think, that she gives so much of herself, to her friends, to her family, to the community in general, that she really has little, or nothing, left for herself.”
Judge Moorman clapped her palm to her brow and began wagging her head in the dismally weary manner of someone grown weary of hearing the same old warm wonderful-ism we hear so much in these mawkish times.
“Okay,” the judge said. “Stop right there. I’ve read all these letters, and” — lifting an impressively large clump of them — “I don’t doubt they are all well-intentioned, submitted by well-meaning people. But when I see somebody who has been driving under the influence for as long and as consistently as Ms. Rainville has, despite every measure the courts have taken to stop her, I have to wonder. I have a responsibility — a responsibility I take very, very seriously — to protect the community, and I don’t know how I can do that in this case except by incarcerating her.”
Moorman laid the letters aside and fanned out some of the contents of the file, thumping her forefinger down on one of them in particular.
“Ms. Rainville,” the judge said, “you will get into a car and drive when you are blacked-out to the point that I don’t think even you know what you are doing. The woman in Mendocino, the one you ran off the road, was nearly killed. You very nearly ran her off a cliff. And when you went through that fence, those people were young and spry enough to leap out of the way — but what if they hadn’t been so young and spry? What then? No! Don’t you dare stand there and hang your head! You look at me and you listen to me! What if that car went through the wall and killed that little boy? Am I supposed to wait until you kill somebody — is that what I’m supposed to do?”
Moorman stared hard at Ms. Rainville, a woman who looks like a librarian of the most demure stereotype. Even though she was standing there in her jailhouse jumpsuit it's still impossible to imagine her as a motor-borne kamikaze cocktail. The judge's condemning stare caused Joan to blink, blink again, and she was soon in tears.
“Give her a kleenex,” the judge ordered her bailiff.
“All these people,” Judge Moorman said, “have written to me saying I should let you resume your rehab program. What rehab? You’ve been in rehab, supposedly, for years, and still you get behind the wheel smashed out of your mind? It doesn’t seem to be working, and that’s what I’m grappling with today.”
Joan's kleenex had dissolved into a wet little ball, which, with her handcuffs hooked to a chain around her waist, she couldn’t quite reach her face to staunch the flow of remorseful tears spilling down her face.
Mr. Higgins began in a tentative murmur:
“Ms. Rainville lacks the education, your honor, the necessary treatment for her manifold problems, of which Dr. Kelly has identified at least three of them. And some of these psychological issues have been trivialized by prosecution in the past. But I don’t think she consciously gets behind the wheel. She’s done treatment programs, but relapsed, and you’ll have relapses in these programs, it’s part of the process.”
“Whoa!” the judge interrupted. “That’s not what the doctor said! He didn’t say she relapsed. He said she’d done poorly; that her performance was poor, at best!”
“Well,” Higgins temporized, “I don’t know how he drew those conclusions…”
“You don’t? How could you not? He spells it out? Did you read the report?”
“Well, yes, there’s that, too," Higgins conceded. "But in the last few weeks, she’s begun to show some emotion, and I feel that if the court were to give her a chance to find an appropriate program to learn the coping skills for these three separate problems, a chance she’s never had before…”
Mr. Locatelli, the probation officer seated in the witness box, abruptly recoiled in disbelief at Higgins' statement. He looked like he’d been slapped, and before Higgins could finish his comments, Judge Moorman again interrupted.
“Did you see that? Did you see the way the probation officer just jumped back? How amorphous was that? I hope you’re not trying to suggest that Ms. Rainville has not been given every break, every chance, every opportunity?”
Higgins, standing before his weeping client, paused a moment to consult the remaining pages of his legal pad, found nothing worth remarking, and murmured that his client would like to address the court.
Joan Rainville unfolded a copy of her letter and began to read through her sniffles.
“I’m writing this letter from the jail where I’ve had time to do a lot of soul-searching, and I find that I’m filled with regret, remorse and shame for what I’ve done to my family, my friends, my neighbors and the community. I’m aware of the repercussions of my actions — I’m highly aware of how my old methods have failed me, and what I need to do to make amends. I have decided that I will never own a car or drive again, because I’ve caused so much shame and embarrassment for my friends and family, so I ask the court for leniency. For years I’ve been on Social Security for my PTSD disability and my depression, so please consider jail time instead of prison for me. If I can stay here in the community where I have support, I feel I can overcome these issues. But I’ve talked to other women in the jail and they tell me that I won’t do well in the prison environment. So please, please help me in my recovery, instead of sending me to prison. I will not disappoint the court again. I’ve been chilled down to the bones for what I was capable of doing on that Memorial Day weekend, and I’m aware of my criminal history and probation violations. But I’m scared to death right now and I’m promising you with all my ability that I will never have a car or a license again. Thank you.”
Judge Moorman turned to prosecutor Sequeira.
“To lend the court a little of my perspective, your honor,” Sequeira said, “I’ve seen twelve Watson* murders in my career. And you know what? No one ever gets it until it’s too late. And, to me, it’s really not about the drinking. In other countries, drinking isn’t the issue; it’s more about what you do in a car. But here in America, we attack the drinking because it’s an addiction, and we feel we have to do something about that. Why? Because in America, it is so essential to get everybody back out there on the road, burning gas, buying cars and paying for insurance. The courts do everything they can, bending over backwards, to help people with drinking problems get their licenses back, and get back out there on the road.”
Mr. Sequeira threw up his hands up in a gesture of frustration.
“But, you know what,” he resumed, “I don’t really care if somebody wants to drink themselves to death. My problem is with the driving. Now, there’s plenty of alcoholics out there who don’t drive and I don’t have a problem with that. And I don’t really care if Ms. Rainville stops drinking, or not; I just don’t want her to get behind the wheel of a car when she’s been drinking. We’ve made such a big deal out of these programs, these rehab programs, and all the helping professionals that go along with it, and Ms. Rainville’s a real pro at that business. She knows all the buzzwords, she knows all the right things to say, how to jump through all the hoops; hell, she knows the syllabus frontwards and backwards, and could probably teach the class herself better than anyone else. She says she suffers from PTSD — and I don’t mean to trivialize that — but where did she get it? It was from the San Francisco PD officers who chased her through the streets of San Francisco and had to break her window out after a drunk driving spree that nearly killed several people. Her recurring theme is, ‘I’m a victim because I have a disease, this disease of alcoholism.’ And the courts play right into it — not this court, your honor — but the way it’s all set up, and you know what I mean, your honor. But all these other courts have failed to stop her from driving under the influence, so I would ask this court a rhetorical question: Why is this court any different? Why is this court finally going to get through to her where all the others have failed? For 27 years she’s been getting drunk and getting behind the wheel. She’s dangerous and she deserves prison. Though she doesn’t look it, she’s more dangerous than many people this court sends to prison every day. She’s earned a prison sentence, and I’m asking the court to impose it.”
Locatelli, the probation officer, seconded the motion. “I can’t argue with Mr. Sequeira’s reasoning; I signed off on the report and I’ll submit it on that.”
Higgins, clearly outgunned, said, “I’ve noticed something different in Ms. Rainville. I think she finally gets it, something has clicked in her; she gets it, the gravity of what she did, this time she’s finally affected by it this time. She’s hit bottom so I beg the court to let her address these issues.”
The young public defender should have stayed away from “issues.” He only established that he was no stranger to psycho-blather. Besides, his client was way past discussing her “issues.” Higgins should have begged the judge to keep Joan out of state prison where middleclass white women are doubly punished for the sins of their forefathers. It's not like county jails are a walk in the park, but most of the women confined to them aren't as tough and as hopeless as the women confined to state prisons.
The judge said, “Well, Ms. Rainville, I didn’t take this job to win any friends, but I have never been so furious with a human being as I am with you. And the reason is, you’ve had all the chances. I see a trail of people in here every day who haven’t had one-tenth the chances you’ve had. And I agree with Mr. Sequeira, the courts are at fault to some extent in focusing on the addiction, the disease of alcoholism. And it’s your choice if you want to drink yourself into an early grave. But when you get behind the wheel of a car when you’ve been drinking it becomes my problem. I thought of sending you on a ride-along with the CHP, so you could see someone who has been decapitated, or a dead child on the side of the road, but you’ve been to Lucky Deuce and already seen all those gory movies so you should know by now what you’re risking when you drive under the influence, I don’t know what it’s going to take, but I have a duty to protect the public from you. I’ve considered everything and agonized over it extensively, but I’m going to impose the aggravated term of four years for Count One and one year for Count Two, for a total of five years in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and place you on probation with a suspended execution of sentence. Also, there will be 365 days in the County Jail with credit for time served.”
Joan's credits for the time she’s already been in jail will cover the jail sentence for the most part.
“And as soon as you get out of jail you are to go directly into at least a 12-month residential rehab program and — not that it will do any good — I’m going to ban you from driving. I think you finally have hit bottom, but don’t prove me wrong, Ms. Rainville: one misstep and you’re going to prison. You have 60 days to appeal this sentence, and if you cannot afford a lawyer, the appeal court will appoint one.”
There was some confusion over the defendant’s jail time credits — Joan's been in custody out on Low Gap Road since Memorial Day last year, the day of the offense. She was ordered back the following Tuesday, to get the time served credits sorted out.
Joan Rainville had gotten her Last Break.
(* The Watson Advisement refers to when a judge tells a repeat DUI offender that he or she can be charged with murder if they do it again and someone dies as a result.)