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The Ruoff Sentencing

Last Friday’s judgment and sentencing of Joshua Ruoff for the murder of Timothy Sweeting brought to the fore all the courtroom drama necessary to make for a classic Tragedy; that is, it had the requisite elements of pity and terror, as Tragedy is defined by Aristotle.

On June 29, after only four hours of deliberation, Ruoff was convicted of willful, deliberate, and premeditated First Degree Murder of Timothy Sweeting at a marijuana plantation being operated on the outskirts of Covelo on May 18, 2016.

A long time ago, before smart phones, before TV, before cinemas, before playhouses even, people used to go to trials for the drama, for the theater of it all, and it is a holdover from those days that we have so many crime stories as bestsellers and cable TV series, all the novels and movies about murders, forensics, lawyers and prisons, competing storylines: There is a fundamental need in the human experience for the drama inherent in a Tragedy.

In this case, for instance, we had the old father who stood trembling with grief before the court, like in a play by Sophocles, Euripides or Shakespeare, and it evoked our pity to listen as he told the judge in a cracking voice that his only son, Timothy Sweeting, brutally murdered by the defendant Joshua Ruoff, was the end of the Sweetings, the end of the line for his family name.

But first there had been the prosecutor’s terrifying statement about the cowardice and brutality of the crime – all of which we’ve heard before in the trial coverage which would make for a really scary movie, to put it in the most innocuous language I can come up with.

Then we had Ruoff’s attorney, Jan Cole-Wilson indignantly declaiming that her client, going to prison for 26 years, would in all likelihood, be the end of his family line as well — then in a spurt of spleen, Ms. Cole-Wilson spat out a long stream of vilification against the witnesses saying, “And every one of those people living at that house came in here and lied – yes, lied! – lied about how much drinking and, I think, how much drug abuse, how much drinking and drugging was going on at that house!”

To aphorize Ms. Cole-Wilson’s histrionics we might say good trial lawyers have to be good actors, they have to play roles in front of juries and crowded courtroom galleries, they have to get out there on the stage of the bailiwick and “break a leg”—to borrow a thespian phrase — without going over-the-top, mind you, because you can’t wink at the audience and whisper “I’m just acting, I know my guy’s a bad hat, but it’s my job to put on this show, otherwise, he’ll get a new trial for inadequate representation, and all that rot at the appellate courts us defense lawyers are susceptible to…”

No, she can’t very well say any of that. So she said, “And I don’t know how in hell that jury came back with first degree murder in this case that should never have been anything more than second degree at best, and, I think, voluntary manslaughter, so we will definitely be appealing that, I can tell you.”

Defense had made it “abundantly clear,” she said, “that my client was bipolar and that there were some very exasperating circumstances he was coping with at that house, and after our appeal is filed it is my belief there will be further investigation as to what was really going on at that house.”

The house in question was the site of a medical marijuana grow. This reporter has worked on marijuana grows and visited others. It is not unusual to find such low-level workers and even the property owners “abusing alcohol” (Ms. Cole-Wilson’s phrase for beer drinking). And yes, they also smoke meth and snort cocaine when they can get it. And while some drinkers overdo it and go into blackout phases – and are later unable to remember their antics – they don’t murder someone sleeping on the couch.

And since being bipolar (isn’t the whole universe, and everything in it bipolar? Yin/Yang, good and evil, up and down, left and right, right and wrong?) and going into a blackout from drinking beer – there was no hard liquor or wine, even, on the premises – was Ruoff’s only defense, Ms. Cole-Wilson’s emotionally charged presentation had to be somewhat overblown in order to have any hope of convincing anyone – although it failed to convince the jurors.

Ms. Cole-Wilson had flown back East to New Hampshire to meet with a psychologist who had once treated Ruoff for his Bipolar-2 condition, which I believe is the milder form of the, er, um, uh, “the disorder.” She sniffed back a tear and said it was the most difficult case she ever had, and that her client’s “tragic history of abuse, with its small sanctuaries of brief happiness, was representative of similar lives that always end tragically… He’d even once attempted suicide.” Cole-Wilson was preaching to the wrong choir – none of Ruoff’s people had come to the sentencing — and the victim’s family was not moved by these violin solos depicting Ruoff’s troubles and tribulations. She cut it short by saying she hoped to get some justice through the appellate court, and was highly displeased with a comment in the probation report made by Detective Sergeant Luis Espinoza, something to the effect that Ruoff refused to make a statement until he’d spoken, not to his lawyer, but to a psychologist. Cole-Wilson wanted the remark stricken.

Judge John Behnke said, “That’s fine, I’m willing to strike it for two reasons. One, I don’t understand it; and two, I heard everything myself during the trial and so it has not made any influence on my decision.”

“That’s true, but it will follow my client, your honor.”

“Yes, and I said I’ve stricken it!”

The judge, too, seemed a little put out at Defense making a victim out of the defendant.

Timothy Sweeting’s sister asked the judge for not only the 26-years-to-life, but wanted his honor to add on 150 years more; the sister was also asking for restitution for her expensive therapy treatment in dealing with the “panic attacks” she suffers from since the murder of her only sibling, Timothy Sweeting, who had been such a positive support in her life.

Then Timothy Sweeting’s mother spoke. She has followed the case all the way through, making all the court appearances over the past two years, coping with the delays, especially the one wherein former Public Defender Linda Thompson waited until the eve of trial before declaring a conflict of interest, and shifting the case onto Jan Cole-Wilson, who had just joined the Office of the Alternate Public Defender. I did not record Ms. Sweeting’s words in my notebook. (Some reporters go after the emotional breakdowns with appalling eagerness, as they know their publishers and editors will be immensely gratified – especially the ones with the video cameras — but I have no stomach for it, myself.) It’s not my style.

Assistant DA Richard Welsh said, “This was a brutal, cowardly act, your honor. Mr. Ruoff attacked Timothy Sweeting while he was sleeping; it was a cold, deliberate and brutal murder and I’ll submit it on that.”

Judge Behnke said, “The evidence in this case is pretty well etched in my mind. I disagree with Ms. Cole-Wilson that her client’s mental health issues were not adequately represented to the jury. The defense made it clear that the defendant had pre-existing mental health and substance abuse problems, and that was all well brought out. The issue was whether a person who becomes voluntarily intoxicated and knows he has these blackout issues – and we only have his word for it, whether it’s true or not – but the bottom line is all that means is that he’s unable to remember what he did at a certain time – if he did. But he made a number of statements beforehand about what he was about to do. He sent a photograph of the weapon he was going to use, the bat, to this ‘Bird,’ that is Mr. Overend saying, ‘here’s the bat that can solve the problem’ – and I don’t know whether he later threw it into the Eel River, though I suspect he probably did. But then still later he slit the throat of Mr. Sweeting, having sent another text message to ‘Bird’ saying, ‘eternal sleep is the cure’. So Mr. Ruoff communicated what he was about to do, went ahead and did it, then dragged the body out into the garden and buried it. Then he fled to the East coast, after having tried to clean up the blood using bleach and the garden hose. So he acted as if he were conscious of what he was doing and then afterward we have only the defendant’s statement that he blacked out.

“So I understand, from reading these letters submitted on his behalf, that there’s times when he’s a loving family member, but when you kill somebody and then try to cover it up and get away… Well, the evidence in this case does support the verdict, Ms. Cole-Wilson, and if there were mistakes made in the trial, as you say, that’s for the appeals court to decide. But I’m satisfied he [Ruoff] knows the enormity of what he did. I’ve read his letter to me. And as to the Xanax and the alcohol, I get your point, Ms. Cole-Wilson, but we’re going to sentence him for what he did that night and I don’t have much discretion as the term is prescribed by law, unless I were to find unusual circumstances and grant probation, but there’s no way I would ever do that in this case.

“I could stay the use of a weapon but I saw no reason to do that – we all saw the photographs of Timothy Sweeting’s skeleton – and it’s hard to imagine a more brutal weapon – so the deadly weapon enhancement will remain, and the defendant is sentenced to one year for that, which he will serve first, then begin the consecutive 25-years-to-life, following the one year. As to the $10,000 fine, the defendant has no resources, so I’m going to reduce that to $2000 and I’ll order the $9000 in restitution to the victim’s mother and sister. The defendant has 789 credits for time served, and that’s all straight time, no 4019 credits, and he is at this time remanded into the custody of the Sheriff for delivery to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

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