The trial of Caleb Silver for the murder of Dennis Boardman in Fort Bragg in early January of 2016 finally got under way last week, having taken up much of the previous week in failed plea negotiations and pre-trial motions, along with other backing and filling delays of a personal nature that devolve on the central players – Mr. Silver doesn’t seem to be in any hurry, for his part, having made a show of flipping a coin to decide if he would accept a plea bargain that would knock ten years off his sentence, taking the offer, then coming back the next day saying no, he’d changed his mind. So the offer was swept off the table and the trial began, but the impediments continue apace.
Prosecutor Tim Stoen is pushing eighty, and has recently been subjected to chemo therapy and other intense medical procedures. So it is fair to say that the murder trial of Caleb Silver has so far been beset with some, shall we say, “senior moments.”
But when it comes to dithering, Mr. Stoen is not the only professional on the set; Eric Rennert of the Office of the Public Defender has developed a personal style of lawyering that intentionally utilizes the technique of dithering, hemming and hawing almost to the point of parody to stall the proceedings.
Judge John Behnke soon learned the hard way that the only means of keeping the trial on track would be to speak orders directly into his microphone. Amplification was required by Mr. Stoen, who tended to get lost in the marvels of his penlight and his laser pointer, as he flashed it on the screen and asked the witnesses and jurors if they could see what he was talking about, “these items here, ladies and gentlemen, see these items in here where my laser printer [sic] is …” The jurors — all but one old gent stomping around on a noisy aluminum cane — are about the age of the young defendant, though there are a few old enough to be his disaffected father or his long-suffering mom.
There was some testimony that the decedent was also hard of hearing, so it wasn’t unusual that people talked loudly around Dennis Boardman. It was also made clear that the people who lived “upstairs” – and it was incredible that there was an upstairs to Boardman’s house, judging from the pictures of it, but it was clear that these “neighbors” had been down at the Tip Top telling sea stories for cocktails, and we’ll have more about that next week, “God willing and the creek don’t rise,” as Mr. Stoen’s fond of saying.
There have been no surprises so far in the trial, and the evidence had unfolded pretty much the way everyone expected (the defendant included, to judge by his nonchalance going forward with the trial).
We all knew, for instance, that the body of the victim was found when Dennis Boardman’s daughter called the Fort Bragg Police and asked for a welfare check on her father, and how the officers found the decedent murdered with hammer blows to the back of the head and his throat cut. We already knew about the victim’s truck and dog found abandoned in Carpenteria outside of Santa Barbara, how defendant Silver turned up in jail using a false name, how he sent a letter of confession to his mother telling her he’d be going up for 25-to-life, along with a quote from the Book of Hebrews that asks for pity on poor prisoners. We knew that a good many people abused Mr. Boardman’s hospitality and that Silver and his girlfriend had recently been kicked out of his house, and that Boardman’s truck was no longer at Silver’s disposal, all this providing Silver with a motive (amazing how homicidal the younger folks get when forced out of the nest in their late twenties and thirties and forties!—and Boardman was, even by Silver’s own admission, like a father to the defendant).
There had been so much publicity of the facts surrounding the investigation, in fact, that the jury had to be given written questionnaires to sort out those who knew too much about the case, and so the panel wasn’t seated until Wednesday – which actually went quicker than anticipated. Mr. Stoen gave his opening statement at about 11:00, laying out how the events had come together to incriminate Caleb Silver, and how the evidence would prove it all beyond any reasonable doubt.
Then it was Mr. Rennert’s turn. He hemmed and hawed a minute or two, asked for a break to run to get something from his office, five minutes turned into ten, and after all that, Rennert asked if he couldn’t please, your honor, have until after lunch. It was only 11:30, so two more hours went out the window, with the judge apologizing profusely again and again for the delays.
At 1:30 the court reconvened and Rennert gave an outstanding performance of dithering the likes of which was so lacking in substance my notes are little more than a repetition of phrases like, “Thee (he actually pronounces the as thee, to draw it out longer, one supposes) uh, ummm… well, the district attorney [Stoen] has said some of thee uh, the facts, as uh... as he uh sees them, er, uh, that is, it, of course, these umm, uh, facts of the case, he says – him being the district attorney – he ...uh, says that – well, let me just say that he uh, as you might have guessed, he – that is we, I mean, we – and by we I mean the defense, we, uh well we have a slightly different take on things as you might imagine and well, uh, we would just ask you, the jury, ladies and gentlemen, to keep an open mind, and remember that we don’t deny my client stole the truck, but there’s no evidence to place him in thee uh umm, the house, the scene of the murder, and so again, ladies and gentlemen, keep an open mind until the facts are all in.”
Finally, after this illuminating discourse the trial was ready to go, but the witnesses had been told to wait until Thursday, the court having anticipated a full afternoon of Mr. Rennert dithering through all the weeks worth of elements of the case he'd tried unsuccessfully to suppress, and of which he had threatened to alert the jury to, which was his right, and you'll be allowed to do that, the judge had assured him, and the judge had said it loud enough that even Mr. Stoen heard it, and therefore Stoen put his long file of witnesses on standby until the following day, and so again the jury’s time was, if not wasted, then at least not put to very thrifty use, and they were sent home early, and asked to come back next day promptly at 9:30. This they did, all but one, whose car broke down in Fort Bragg.
There were three alternate jurors, so this should have hardly been a problem. But Caleb Silver and his lawyer pounced on it and said they wouldn’t be happy unless the missing juror was present. The judge went away to call the juror, only got a voice mail, no answer, and a few more hours went by. Finally, the judge got through to the juror and asked if he couldn’t catch a bus, which as anyone knows who rides the bus, the answer was no, since both buses leave Fort Bragg early in the morning, and there are no others. In the end, and over the protracted protests of defense, the juror was replaced by an alternate and the trial began.
So, in effect, after more than two weeks of dithering – not to mention a series of earlier hearings wherein Mr. Rennert tried to call all the blood tests into question, as if the blood spattered on the walls and night stand, the blood pools on the floor and bed, were not human blood, and how could anyone know for sure – so finally after all this, the jury was able to hear evidence from 10:45 until noon; and then again, from 1:30 until 3:30 – about three and a half hours of work after two and a half weeks of dithering.
There were at least a few instances of coherence, from both the prosecution and the defense attorney. Mr. Rennert, who would hem and haw, back and fill, played the distracted professor lost in his ruminations. Then he’d suddenly change tack, and say something like this jewel: "Uhmm-humm, but thee uh the thing is – well, just let me ask you this Lead Investigator Angelica Wilder – this is your first, isn’t it? I mean you’ve never been lead investigator on a homicide before, have you?”
No, she admitted, she hadn’t, and it would have passed without notice if it were not also true that this wasn’t our Mr. Rennert’s first homicide, and he appears to have gone out and bought himself a brand new three-piece suit for the occasion, all of which makes his greenhorn attempt to come off as the old pro at Detective Wilder’s expense exposes something of a joke.
So ends this installment of an only-in-Mendo courtroom drama so farcical you almost wouldn’t know that a kind and generous man had been murdered in his Fort Bragg home.