The prosecution didn’t have much of a case against him, but Timothy S. 'Coke’ Elliott, 38, was found guilty of Second Degree Murder last week at the end of a two-week trial attended throughout by many members of the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians.
Samuel Billy, 29, was found with a knife puncture in his stomach in the early morning hours of September 26, 2008.
Billy, who had been a basketball star at Ukiah High School a decade earlier, had died on the operating table in Santa Rosa later that day.
Tim 'Coke' Elliott is now looking at 16 years to life in state prison for having administered the knife that punctured Sam Billy's stomach and killed him.
The primary witness in the case was a nine-year-old boy who was only seven years old when he saw what he saw. The presumed murder weapon was too short, an expert testified, to have gotten far enough into Sam Billy's stomach to have killed him.
But the jury came back with a guilty verdict last Friday after only two days of deliberation. They wouldn't have to spend the weekend considering the probabilities of thin, very thin, evidence.
Timothy Elliott’s lawyer, Public Defender Linda Thompson, made a motion for acquittal early on for lack of evidence, and after all the see through evidence was in she made the motion again, but both times Judge Richard Henderson stamped it “Denied.”
Judge Henderson has long been considered a rubberstamp for the District Attorney’s Office. “Ricky Rubberstamp,” the local defense bar has labeled him.
The knife in question was less than two inches long, handle included, and the stab wound Sam Billy died from was about six inches deep. The crime scene had been “contaminated” by numerous people coming and going, and the investigation was stonewalled from the beginning by a close-knit community that doesn’t seem to have much faith in “white man’s justice.”
The case was assigned to Detective Andrew Whittaker who said he was “met with a lot of resistance; people were being very uncooperative.”
Detective Whittaker eventually found the child witness, Isaiah Valesquez.
Isaiah said he saw the defendant, “Coke,” “punch” the victim, Sam, at around 3:30am during an on-going party in the parking lot of an apartment complex at the end of Shanel Drive on the Hopland Rancheria. Apparently, it was Coke’s birthday party. Isaiah is now nine-years-old.
A recording of Isaiah's interview with Detective Burns was played for the jury. The recording was played as a defense exhibit because of some “inconsistencies” in the two-year-old recorded version of what Isaiah said in 2008 when he was seven, and Isaiah's testimony last week in 2010 when he was nine.
In the recording, the jury heard the younger, more exuberant Isaiah Vasquez.
The boy tells Detective Burns that he’s in third grade at the Hopland Elementary School and likes reading.
Burns: “What kind of books?”
Isaiah: “Chapter books. And Pokeman!”
Burns: “What kind of grades do you get?”
Isaiah: “Ummm… good. I get good grades in school. Very good grades.”
Burns: “Do they grade you with As and Bs or percents?”
Burns: “So what grades did you get?”
Isaiah: “A hundred!”
Burns: “Good for you! I was here the other night” – several days had gone by since the knifing, and a few days had passed more since Detective Burns had first met Isaiah, but Isaiah knows why the detective has returned to talk to him again.
Isaiah: “Do you want me to tell the story?” he asks with impatient enthusiasm.
Burns: “Yeah, sure, if you can remember it.”
Isaiah: “I saw Coke and Sam outside talking, then Coke was punching Sam in the stomach and Sam was holding his stomach, then Sam fell down in the road. Then Coke ran to Jessica’s house.”
Burns: “So you were upstairs in your bedroom?”
Isaiah: “Yeah, uh-huh. I was watching a movie!”
Burns: “What movie?”
Isaiah: “It was the Snow Bunnies.”
Burns: “Do you know what time it was?”
Isaiah: “Oh, yeah. It was 11 o’clock.”
Burns: “How did you know it was 11?”
Isaiah: ‘Cause I saw it was 11 on the microwave.”
Burns: “Were there police and deputies there?”
Isaiah: “Yeah, there were police officers and deputies too.”
Burns: “Okay, here’s what we need to do, Isaiah. We have lots of time–”
Isaiah: “Could you wait while I use the bathroom? You make me kind of nervous.”
Isaiah’s siblings can be heard in the background of the recording. While Isaiah is absent, his mother says something indistinguishable to the detective. Shortly, Isaiah returns, a tiny race car roaring out of a pit-stop, hoping to make up lost time.
Burns: “So you were sleeping and then you woke up.”
Isaiah: “Yeah, I woke up and my movie was still on. Then my Mom and Dad woke up because I turned my movie up — wait! I got stuck — Where was I? And then — and then — there were lots of people out there. And then — then, someone threw someone against that car! My Mom and Dad were talking and I said, ‘That’s Sam out there!’ My Mom took a towel and a cup of water out there — then Sam’s brother was there and he said, ‘Come back, you cowards’ — then he gave Sam CPR. Then lots of cops came, and firefighters. There were lots of people there.”
Burns: “Did you see all that from your bedroom?”
Burns: “Let’s back up. Tell me again what it was you saw from your window.”
Isaiah: “But, well, then, Sam’s older brother, Derek–“
Burns: “You gotta pull your hand away from your mouth, ‘cause I can’t really hear you.”
Isaiah: “Then Coke said, ‘Look at your man, he’s fading.”
So far, this line and the part about seeing the punch to the stomach, were the only things the nine-year-old could reconcile with what he heard as a seven-year-old. But seven-year-old Isaiah adds this, with an air of candor in his sigh: “I couldn’t really hear what they were saying, ‘cause of my TV. But then Coke was moving up. Coke had on a white shirt. But Coke was drunk and Sam wasn’t. But then I saw Coke beat up some other guys.”
Burns: “I can’t keep up with that.”
Nine-year-old Isaiah had said last week that Sam was drunk.
Isaiah let up on the throttle, took a breath, shifted down and floored it: “Coke said, ‘Lookit, your boy’s fadin’' to Sam, but Sam… Then the good people went to check out Sam!”
Isaiah is sniffling and coughing like he has a cold, which would explain why he had his hand to his mouth earlier. His mother, perhaps interrupting to hand him a tissue, says, “Don’t get confused.”
The victim, Sam Billy, was her “friend,” in Isaiah’s words.
Burns: “What happened next?”
Isaiah: “I think I just forgot,” he sniffed. “Sam wasn’t, uhh …? And Coke said, ‘I’m gonna take you down, dude. Then Derek thought Coke was going to do the uppercut to Derek but he did it to Sam. He did this” — there’s some rustling noise on the recording as if Isaiah were shadow-boxing — “and then he did that, then Derek was doing CPR to Sam like this, then like that (more rustling noises), but it wouldn’t work.”
Burns: “Did you see any weapons?”
Isaiah: “Nope. Nobody had any weapons,” the boy said emphatically.
Burns: “You did really good.”
At this point Dr. Trent, the County’s forensic medic who did the autopsy appeared. He was running late from the Crime Lab in Eureka, but I had to catch the bus back to Boonville. On the ride home, out of idle curiosity, I glossed the word: Autopsy is Latin. It means “see for yourself.”
Isaiah the younger had made a storyteller out of Isaiah the elder, it seemed. The Defense had been given a copy of this two- year-old recording, so it’s easy to imagine how startled Linda Thompson was with the “inconsistencies” in the child's testimony, as if either a 7 or a 9-year-old or a 29-year-old could be expected to have total recall.
The defendant, Tim Elliott, sat immobile throughout his, head erect, his back to the gallery the long braids of his hair trailing down the back of his chair. Elliot's a good looking man who politely rises as the jury comes and goes. He looks like a kid himself. How can people who've known each other all their lives come to this? The way we live now could make a grown man cry.
When Ms. Thompson cross-examined nine-year-old Isaiah two weeks ago — before the jury had heard the recording of his interview when he was 7 — she may have sounded a little too combative, a little too insensitive to the child witness. The consensus around the Courthouse is that once you even sound like you're attacking a child, you’ve lost the jury’s sympathy. Attack is too strong a word for what happened here but, still, it seems Ms. Thompson pressed too hard. Especially, perhaps, for the eight women on the jury.
The prosecutor was Deputy DA Rayburn Killion, known by all the women in the Courthouse as The Hunk!” He’s a tall, fit young man, stylish in his pinstripes, shaved dome and cool-guy goatee. He works in a dowdy, easily aroused context, you might say.
Killion presented another witness, a man whose reluctance to testify was in stark contrast to Isaiah’s eagerness. His name was Patrick Zaste, as near as I could tell, because his voice on the stand was so low, a murmur at best, and though he was often asked to repeat himself for the court reporter who sat right next to him, Mr. Zaste's testimony was very difficult to hear. He had come to the police, he said, four or five days afterward with some clothes he said the defendant had left at his house shortly after the killing.
Apparently, the defendant came to Zaste’s house at 5am or thereabouts.
Zaste: “Yes, at my residence.”
Killion: “How early?”
Zaste: “Five am. About five, I think.”
Killion: “What were you doing?”
Killion: “What woke you?”
Zaste: “Banging on the door.”
Killion: “Who was there?”
Zaste: “Priscilla Knight and Tim Elliott.”
Killion: “Did you let ’em in?”
Zaste: “No. But they pushed on the door and came on in.”
Killion: "And after they came in, what did they do then?”
Zaste: "They came into the living-room, ummm… and started to say someone’s after ‘em and…”
Killion: “What was Tim wearing?”
Zaste: “White shirt, dark pants.”
Killion: "Then Tim went into the bathroom? How long was he in there?”
Zaste: “A short time.”
Killion: “Like five, 15 minutes?”
Zaste: “No, only three, maybe four.”
Killion: “Notice anything when he came out?”
Zaste: “Dirty laundry.”
Killion: “When did you hear Sam Billy had died?”
Zaste: “Later that day?”
Killion: “Remember who told you?”
Killion: “Had you known him long?”
Zaste: “Since I was 14.”
Killion: “Had Tim been to your house before?”
Zaste: “Yeah. Once or twice.”
Killion: “How do you know Priscilla?”
Zaste: “We’re related. She’s my cousin.”
Killion: “Did they use your phone?”
Zaste mutters something and again the jurors complain that they can’t hear him.
Killion: “Did they leave?”
Zaste: “Yes. After about 20 minutes.”
Killion: “Find any clothes in your bathroom?”
Killion: “Anything else?”
Zaste: “A little pocket knife.”
Patrick Zaste said he put these things in his closet for a time and then moved them to the trunk of his car. It was unclear how much time had passed, but eventually he heard Tim Elliott had turned himself in.
Killion: “Did you contact law enforcement?”
Zaste: “I believe so.”
Zaste: “I don’t remember.”
Killion: “Why didn’t you come forward?”
Zaste: “I was scared for my family and stuff.”
Killion took the clothes out of an evidence bag and Patrick Zaste identified them.
When Public Defender Thompson cross-examined Zaste he became even quieter. He sat silent, looking down at times, when asked a question. Thompson had to ask and re-ask her questions before she could get a muttering response.
Thompson: “He asked to use the phone. Did you hear him have a conversation?”
Thompson: “The clothes he took from the bathroom, were they on the floor?”
Zaste, instead of answering, asked the judge if he could take a break. He left the courtroom and everyone patiently waited the ten minutes it took him to return.
Thompson: “After Tim and Priscilla left you went into the bathroom. You saw a T-shirt and jeans on the floor. And the pocket knife was on top?”
Zaste: “Uhh, no.”
Thompson: “Where was it, then?”
Zaste: “On the clothes.”
Thompson: “How long before you put them in the bag?”
Zaste: “I don’t know.”
Thompson: “Did you touch the knife?”
Zaste: “I don’t remember.”
Thompson: “Okay. Once you packaged the clothes up, what did you do with them?”
Zaste: “Put ‘em in the closet.”
Thompson: “And how long were they in the closet?”
Zaste: “Don’t know.”
Thompson: “Well, you said you heard Sam died; was it after you heard that?”
Zaste muttered indistinctly.
Thompson: “Well, then, when did you put the clothes in the car?”
Zaste muttered something else.
Thompson: “And shortly after that you also heard that Mr. Elliott had been arrested, did you tell anyone that you had the clothes at that point?”
Thompson: “When did you ever tell anyone that you had the clothes?”
Thompson: “Did you call the sheriff’s office and tell them you had the clothes?”
Thompson: “In fact you were contacted by the Sheriff’s office in November, were you not?”
Zaste: “Can you say that again? I don’t understand.
Thompson: “Do you remember how long it was before the Sheriff’s office contacted you?”
Thompson: “When you went to the Sheriff’s office to talk to Detective Whittaker, you still had the clothes in the trunk of the car?”
Thompson: “Were you being recorded?”
Zaste: “I saw the tape recorder.”
Thompson: “Did the detective ask you questions or just say, ‘tell me what you know’?”
Zaste: “What are you asking me?”
Thompson: “Did he ask you any questions about Timothy Elliott?”
Zaste: “Don’t remember.”
Thompson: “Priscilla Knight?”
Zaste: “Don’t remember.”
Thompson: “He didn’t ask if Tim and Priscilla had been to your house?”
Zaste: “Don’t remember.”
Thompson: “Did he ask if you had anything belonging to Tim Elliott?”
Zaste: “Don’t remember.”
Thompson: “Do you remember what you talked about?”
Zaste: “What I knew.”
Thompson: “Did you tell Detective Whittaker about what Elliott was wearing when he came to your house?”
Zaste: "I don’t remember.”
The witness’s amnesia was getting to everyone, it seemed, and Judge Henderson called a break.
After the lunch break, the testimony, or lack thereof, resumed. The witness was no more cooperative than before, and with the eyes of his Hopland tribesmen fixed on him, Mr. Zaste's nervousness seemed to increase his amnesia.
Thompson: “Now, you had the clothes in your trunk over a month. Did at anytime, during that time, did Priscilla come ask you for the clothes?”
Thompson: “Did they — either Tim or Priscilla — ask you to do anything with those clothes?”
“I don’t know.”
Thompson: “Did you ever tell Detective Whittaker you were willing to write a statement on a computer?”
Thompson: “Did you.”
Zaste: “I don’t have a computer?”
Thompson: “You didn’t see the clothes Tim took from your bathroom floor again until yesterday — did you tell them yesterday they were your clothes?”
Zaste: “Uh, yeah.”
Thompson: “I have nothing further.”
Killion: “When you got shown the clothes yesterday, did Detective Whittaker say anything?”
Zaste: “Yeah, ‘take a look at these’.”
Killion: “Are you pretty nervous about testifying?”
Killion: “Why is that?”
Zaste: “My family’s well-being.”
Killion: “Are you doing something with your wrist?”
Killion: “What is that?”
Zaste: “A rubber band.”
Killion: “Why is that?”
Zaste: “I’m nervous.”
Other potential witnesses were even more reluctant to testify than Mr. Zaste. Detective Whittaker had said no one would talk to him, but as he was walking around the parking lot he found a blood spot on the tailgate of a Ford Bronco. Looking inside he found a T-shirt with a knife cut and a bloodstain on it. The vehicle belonged to Richard Billy. Richard said the shirt probably belonged to his brother Derek Billy, who was called to the stand.
Killion held the shirt up and said, “Do you recognize this shirt?”
Derek Billy: “Yes, it’s mine.”
Killion: “See this hole?”
Killion: “Know how it got there?”
Billy: “No, I don’t.”
Killion: “Do you remember having an interview with Detective Whittaker?”
Billy: “I don’t remember the date.”
Killion showed a picture of a stab wound in Derek Billy’s chest and asked if he remembered being stabbed. He didn’t remember. Did he remember putting the shirt in the Bronco?
Billy: “No, I don’t.”
Killion: “You remember putting your shirt on Sam?”
Billy: “Yes, I do.”
Killion: “Remember the police being there?”
Billy: “I do.”
Killion: “Remember talking to them?”
Billy: “No, but I remember they were there.”
Ms. Thompson cross-examined.
Thompson: “Did you and Sam go to a softball game that night?”
Billy: “I don’t remember.”
Thompson: “Do you recall when the game was over?”
Billy: “No, not really.”
Ms. Thompson asked more questions but Derek Billy couldn’t remember, he said. He left the stand and the lawyers went into the judge’s chambers for a private confab. When the trial resumed, Ms. Thompson called a forensic pathologist to the stand, Dr. Terry Haddix.
Thompson put a picture of a small pocketknife next to a ruler on the screen. It was less than two inches long, handle included. She asked, “If that knife were used to stab a human body, how far would it go in?”
Dr. Haddix: “That depends on how much force was used. It could go in past the handle, but it would carry cloth into the wound if it went past the blade, producing abrasions.”
Thompson: “Anything consistent with the wound and this knife?”
Haddix: “Yes, but my problem is with the depth of the wound which was 6.7 centimeters. You could have one shorter, but this one is too short to make up the five inches. A four-inch blade could possibly make up the difference, but this is just too short.”
Killion: “If this approximately two-inch blade were”–
Haddix: “I’m sorry, but this is not a two-inch blade. It’s less than one and not enough to make up the over six inches of the wound.”
Thompson: “Dr. Haddix, have you ever been called as a witness for the prosecution?”
Haddix: “Yes. Yes, better than 90% of the time.”
Thompson: “And how often have you found that the evidence did not cause the wound?”
Haddix: “I’ve been presented a number of cases and this is really exceptional.”
Thompson: “Nothing further.”
After the witness left and the jury was out of the room, Ms. Thompson again asked for an acquittal on the grounds that the evidence was insufficient and the testimony lacking in credibility. Judge Henderson said he’d take it under consideration, and recessed for lunch.
After lunch, Judge Henderson said the motion was denied and gave the jury their instructions. Two days later at the end of the day on Friday the jury, perhaps wanting to wrap things up before the weekend, came back with the guilty verdict. They found the child convincing, and they thought the knife was long enough to do what it was accused of doing.
Timothy Elliott faces 16 years-to-life in prison for the conviction, which included the special allegation that he used a knife. He is due in court October 8 for sentencing.
* * *
Tuesday afternoon's mail brought this letter from the defendant:
"First off I would like to introduce myself. My name is Timothy Elliott. I have been incarcerated here in the Mendocino County Jail for the past eleven months. I’m writing to you in regards to the trial I recently went through with Linda Thompson as my defense attorney facing a charge of murder.
Unfortunately, I was found guilty, not because I did the crime but because my attorney was ineffective and unprepared.
There are a few things I’d like to point out that Linda Thompson did do to help the prosecution’s case. It all started with the lack of preparation. She only came to visit me two times during the course of my eleven months of incarceration. And during those visits never did she discuss a defense or a strategy. The only meaningful conversation Linda and I had was about the prosecution’s plea bargain offer, which was voluntary manslaughter and that carries twelve years. Being innocent of these charges, that was out of the question for me.
Linda Thompson never even began to conduct any kind of investigation or a defense for me until three weeks before my trial was to begin. She told me during my prelim that there should have been photos of the crime scene taken by the investigator – not only at the same hour of the incident (4am) but of someone at the same hour from the exact location the witnesses were standing during the incident. The locations the witnesses saw the altercation from were at distances of at least 50 feet or more.
Although it was stated by Linda Thompson that this was an important piece of the investigation, neither she nor her investigator visited or took photos of the crime scene at that hour. Therefore this is a clear example of failing to investigate the crime scene, a basic duty of the Public Defender. They say a picture speaks a thousands words. Linda could have easily taken these photos to present to the jury to discredit the eyewitness testimony that was presented by the prosecution.
Another thing she said needed to be done was blood work on some pieces of clothing entered into evidence. But she didn’t realize this until halfway through the trial. Again, these are basic duties of the public defender. She also didn’t call an available witness for the defense who would have discredited a witness for the prosecution. These are just a couple of the things that Linda should have done to mount a defense. The rest of her failures I’m reserving for legal purposes.
Also, during the course of this trial, the jury members were seen socializing – laughing, joking, etc. – with the victim’s family during breaks in the trial. The jurors’ conduct was no doubt a clear showing of prejudice toward my defense and should also be considered extreme jury misconduct.
I don’t see how an attorney at law can go into a courtroom and try to “wing it” on a murder case and not only expect to win but assure a client that they will win. Had Linda been properly prepared and with reasonable representation I should have been exonerated of the false charges against me because all of the physical and forensic evidence totally excluded me from the crime. So how was it that I was convicted? “Ineffective Assistance of Counsel” which formulated into the withdrawal of a meritorious defense.
Now comes the long and tedious process of the Appeals Court. I now know why the Court of Appeals is there. The reason? For great miscarriages of justice like the one that just happened to me. Now I know precisely why the inmates here at the Mendocino County Jail call my attorney Linda ‘Lose’em All’ Thompson. I want to thank you for your time.
– Timothy S. Elliott, Ukiah