With our overpowering popular culture a death mix of pornography and homicidal recommendations set to music, it's no surprise that profanity now characterizes much of the formal testimony in the otherwise sedate precincts of the Mendocino County Courthouse. Last week's trial in Department A turned the air the bluest it's been yet.
How blue was it?
In what Mr. France’s lawyer, Ms. Jonah Saxby, termed “an epic text battle” between her client and the love of his life, the lovely Ashley Tolles, who is carrying France's unborn child, the two love birds exchanged some of the most vile messages imaginable, in a marathon spat that lasted at least 36 hours. A random example:
Michel France: “I’m gonna knock all your fucking teeth out, and my homeboy from LA has no trouble with selling you as a sex slave.”
Ashley Tolles: “Do it, motherfucker! You are a piece of shit and a coward!”
If there's such a thing as pre-natal verbal influence, the first word out of the kid in Ms. Tolles womb is going to be 'motherfucker.'
The charges against Michael France were in the form of a violation of Penal Code 422 — making criminal threats. The prosecutor, Deputy DA Jonathon Hopkins, had to show the jury that France’s texts scared hell out of his victim, Ashley Tolles, so frightened her they constituted another felony for France.
Defense maintained throughout that Ms. Tolles, judging by the tone and tenor of her responses to France’s threats, never had the slightest fear of her erstwhile lover.
Ms. Tolles had left her iPad at her work at Staples, and didn’t get the first several texts from France for a couple of days, until March 26th that is, and by then France had worked himself into something of a techno-frenzy of frustration at not getting any response to his violent bluster.
When Tolles finally retrieved her iPad from her workplace she scrolled through a roster of messages that began with “How ‘bout I just fucking kill us — you’re driving me insane!”
Prosecutor Hopkins seemed too embarrassed to read the text messages verbatim so he instead gave a kind of précis of each one of the printed messages, transcribed by detective Andrew Philips off Ms. Tolles’ sizzling iPad, glossing over text clusters of f-bombs and stepping gingerly through minefields of death threats.
Hopkins: “In the People’s exhibit number two, he [France] says he’s going to cause Ms. Tolles to lose her job. In People’s three he calls her names and says he’s going to destroy her life. He says he’s going to ‘snap’ on her, that she’s crossed ‘the red line.’ Doubting Ms. Tolles' fidelity, France demands a paternity test. France tells Ms. Tolles she’s not a responsible person and this makes him mad. He says in People’s four he’s coming over to her apartment ‘right now,’ and that he’s going to ‘smash her face’.”
Five or six pages of insults and threats, all scrupulously annotated as to date and time also demonstrated that Ms. Tolles was firing back at France with her own volleys of motherfuckers and repeat characterizations of France as a piece of shit.
A couple of times France went deep, at one point referring to the "gravity" of their dispute, but immediately reverted to a description of Ms. Tolles as a “gutter-slut.”
Tolles, for her part, concluded with, “have a nice life," whose sarcasm she spoiled, apparently out of habit, by gratuitously adding, with an almost audible snarl, "motherfucker.”
On the screen before the jury, France’s text messages were highlighted in blue; Ms. Tolles’ responses in yellow, perhaps the colors of their heir's nursery in more seemly times.
An early response from Tolles says she is going to call the “chips.” Hopkins told the jurors this was a typo — “She meant she was going to call the cops.” And she does call the cops, but not until nearly midnight of the following day, March 27th.
Prosecutor Hopkins: “In People’s eight, he threatens to assault her with his pistol. In nine, he continues to threaten her. Calls her more names in 10 and 11. Then, in 12, he explodes and says he’ll take his chances fighting a murder charge. She responds and says the cops will be waiting for him. This enrages him further and in 13 he says she’ll be a “snitch” if she calls the police, and he’ll put the word out that she’s an informant. In People’s 14 he says he’s going to knock all her teeth out. In 15 he asks if she understands the “gravity” of the trouble she’s in, and she says she’s getting a restraining order. In that case he says, in number 16, he’ll “have only one choice.”
All the marriage counselors in the world working round the clock could not restore this one. And the dilemma faced by the police and the courts is the old one of trying to figure out where the threats stop and the mayhem begins.
A few days earlier, Ms. Tolles, when the love birds were still a kind of couple, she'd been struggling with France to get his cellphone away from him to read some text messages to France from another woman, and in her fury she'd hit France with a coffee mug and split open his head. Officer Maldonado of the Ukiah PD was called, but Tolles denied she and France had a history of domestic combat.
The following day, Officer Madrigal was called to the Tolles-France love nest where she was also told by Ms. Tolles that France was not a threat. Madrigal left a brochure explaining how to get a restraining order.
Back to the text wars. France switches from his smart phone to a device with an app for sending text messages under the guise of an avatar called TommySkyRim. Using this phony name, the flurry of threats continued to escalate to where Ms. Tolles thought that France had teetered over the edge and just might actually harm her. Prosecutor Hopkins had Ms. Tolles on the witness stand where he tried, somewhat ineptly by his own admission, to show the jurors that the threats were thought by Ms. Tolles to be credible and that she now existed in a state of sustained fear.
As Hopkins questioned Ms. Tolles, trying to get her to say she indeed feared for her life, she kept insisting that she was “done” with France, “tired of him” calling her names.
Hopkins: “How did all this make you feel?”
Tolles: “I was tired of it. I don’t need to be stressed-out while I’m pregnant.”
“But weren’t you afraid he’d carry out his threats when you finally called the police on the 27th?”
Ms. Saxby, for the defense, elicited similar answers.
Saxby: “You were sick of being called names?”
Saxby: “But in fact you engaged in name-calling yourself, didn’t you?”
Saxby: “And at one point you respond to his threats with Ha Ha Ha, correct?”
Saxby: “And at another point you respond with LOL, correct?”
Saxby: “Doesn’t that mean you were laughing out loud?”
Saxby: “Did you have other communications with Michael France other than the ones we’ve seen here in court?”
Saxby: “But they weren’t shown to Detective Philips?”
Tolles: “They weren’t relevant.”
Saxby (alarmed at the sudden change in the witness’s expression): “Are you okay?”
Tolles: “I have a headache and heartburn.”
Saxby: “Do you need to take a break?”
Saxby: “Did you have any further contact with Detective Philips after that?”
Tolles: “I don’t recall, to be honest.”
Saxby: “I don’t have any further questions, thank you.”
Hopkins asked Judge Ann Moorman if he could take a break — he seemed lost in his notes, maybe trying to find which motherfucker he'd left off at, and not succeeding. But the jury, which had to be exhausted at listening to this low life saga, had already been made to wait longer than was reasonable simply because the lawyer was lost. The judge said no, there would be no lawyer-break.
The instructions to the jury were that they had to find Michael France had 1.) willfully threatened to kill Ashley Tolles or cause her great bodily injury; 2.) He had communicated these threats to her; 3.) The threats had been received by her; 4.) The threats were serious and convincing; 5.) The threats caused her to fear for her safety; 6.) That her fear was reasonable under the circumstances; 7.) Whether or not Michael France had any intention of carrying out the threats was not required.
There wasn’t much hope of getting around any of these except maybe number five and six, and that’s what Ms. Saxby focused on in her closing argument that France, while not exactly innocent, hadn't really frightened Ms. Tolles.
Saxby said, “Ashley decides what’s relevant, here, what she’s going to show the detective, and it starts off with ‘Wow, I left my phone at work, you piece of shit, have a nice life, motherfucker, fuck you.’
“Is it reasonable at that point to call the police? Or to say you’re a piece of shit, fuck you? And it doesn’t end there, ladies and gentlemen. You must decide if there is a sustained fear. Was she in actual fear when she made these responses? It sounds more like provocation to me. It’s an epic text battle going on between these two people, but is it fear, actual fear?
“The best indication as to what’s going on is this one, ‘Do it, motherfucker.’ She’s not calling the police until nearly midnight on the 27th. Think back to yourself what would be nearly 36 hours of this text battle between these people before the police are actually called. That’s not indicative of fear. ‘You’re a piece of shit, ha ha ha.’ She says she’s calling the police, but she doesn’t. She says ‘Come on over, motherfucker, you can sit and wait for the police. I have a door that will withstand a zombie apocalypse.’ Again, these are provoking responses, not someone in a state of fear. Or how about this one, ‘I don’t give a fuck what you say, it doesn’t mean a fuck to me, go and smoke some more dope, you stupid fuck.’ She’s saying, bring it on, in other words. These are not statements of fear, ladies and gentlemen, and I’m going to ask you to consider whether this is reasonably the state of mind of someone who is fearful.”
The jury went straight into deliberation, even though it meant skipping lunch. After considering the case for less than an hour they came back with a guilty verdict on the felony charge of Penal Code 422, making criminal threats.
With two prison priors, Michael France will have plenty of time to consider Spock’s old advice to Captain Kirk: “Threats are illogical and often lead to unwanted consequences.”
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DA Press Release UKIAH, Thursday, May 28. -- Jury Trial Result: A jury returned from its deliberations just after the noon hour with a guilty verdict against Michael Ray France, age 26, of Ukiah. Declining to even take a break for lunch, the jury powered through and found the defendant guilty of criminal threats, a felony. After the jury was thanked for its service and released, the truth of whether France had served two prior prison sentences was then tried before Judge Ann Moorman. Based on documentary evidence offered by the prosecutor and admitted into evidence, the Court found true that the defendant had been committed to prison in 2009 for battery on a peace officer, a felony, and then again in 2012 for assault by force likely to inflict great bodily injury, also a felony. The matter has been referred to the adult probation department for a background study and sentencing recommendation. Pending sentencing, the defendant remains in custody at the Low Gap jail facility on a no bail hold. Formal sentencing is now scheduled for July 10, 2015 at 9:00 a.m. in Department A. Anyone interested in this case is welcome to attend that hearing.