“The law struck [Charles] Dickens as a murky business that thrived on delay, complication and confusion.”— Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens
Mr. Todd Ramos was set for jury trial last week on charges of a felon with a gun, somehow related to a domestic abuse case, and with the recent murder of a Willits woman and child I went in to cover the case, which was moving slowly, to put it mildly, the jurors growing impatient and bored down in the jury commissioner’s airy and spacious room on the ground floor, the most pleasant room in the courthouse, but still an inconvenience to the average citizen summoned to jury duty and hoping to get on with it.
At first Mr. Ramos couldn’t be found, though he had been seen earlier in the morning by the bailiff, and then when he was found, he decided to fire his lawyer, Heidi Larson of the Public Defender’s Office. The lawyer-firing process is called a Marsden motion, and the judge ordered everyone out of the courtroom to hear the motion. I went in search of other courthouse drama elsewhere, and by the time I made it back the Ramos case had been ruled a mistrial, because the jury had hung – nine to three in favor of conviction.
Then there was the Michael France case, another felon with a gun case, which also hung in a mistrial – eleven to one in favor of conviction. This one I did see the evidence presented, the opening remarks by the lawyers, some of the pre-trial motions, such as the lawyers stipulating that, yes, Mr. France was a convicted felon, had served time in prison, and had been arrested again within five years of being released from the Big House.
DA David Eyster was prosecuting. The DA delivered an opening statement that was long and complex, outlining what the prosecution thought the evidence would show, and delineating the particulars in Eyster’s own inimitable and engaging style; lawyers all have their particular eccentricities and share a general obduracy, which in our district attorney is seen by criminal defendants as a kind of Don Corleonesque tyranny. Michael France is particularly aggravated by Eyster’s courtroom manner, as his recent letter to the editor clearly states.
France’s lawyer, Patrick Pekin, by contrast, was finished with his opening statement in less than a minute, having only told the jurors that they should wait until all the evidence was in and consider that there were many people in the house where the gun was found, and who the gun belonged to was open to doubt.
The burden is “proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” and jurors sometimes take “reasonable” to mean something unreasonable, depending on whose definition of reasonable you are dealing with – and the courts use the term “average,” as in “what the average person would consider reasonable.” Fair enough, if you live in an average place, such as Schenectady, Scarsdale or Scottsdale, but when you’re dealing with people from Boonville, Laytonville and Covelo the term “average” takes in an outlandish range of perspectives and personalities (Boonville’s own Captain Rainbow, for instance was on France’s jury) where the reasonable fades into the fantastic and beyond the ur, uh, rainbow…”
Eyster called his first witness, Sergeant Peter Hoyle of the Ukiah Police Department who served a search warrant at 847 Yosemite Drive, Oak Manor, Ukiah, on the early afternoon of May 29th, 2018. Sgt. Hoyle said they, he and the other officers, knocked on the door repeatedly and loudly, announcing their presence, and finally forced open the door, something Sgt. Hoyle is experienced at doing. In one bedroom the officers found three people sleeping, some in the bed, another on the floor, and in another bedroom, two more late sleepers (it was early afternoon) one of them being Michael France.
Sound sleepers, we might be so bold as to add. To have slept so late and through such noise as cops would make pounding on the door and shouting, “Police! Search warrant! Open up!” we might be allowed to jump to the conclusion that it must have been one hell of a party!
Hoyle said France was brought out of the second bedroom in handcuffs and his girlfriend was given time to get dressed – she’d been “unclothed” when the officers broke in – the room France had been in had been locked. Everyone was moved into the living room where they were “contained” while the rooms were searched. Hoyle’s partner, Officer Jason Chapman, searched the room France had been in.”
Patrick Pekin on cross-examination: “Good morning Sergeant Hoyle – you’ve been to this residence at Oak Manor before, haven’t you?”
Hoyle: “Yes, I have.”
Pekin: “About a Harley Slapp-Cole (?), was it not?”
Pekin: “Maybe a Mr. Hammond?”
Pekin: “Adam Fuller?”
Pekin: “Did you write a report?”
Hoyle: “No, I didn’t do anything significant in this case.”
Pekin: “The place was a mess, though, wasn’t it?”
Hoyle: “I don’t know what you mean by that.”
Pekin: “Mattresses on the floor?”
Pekin: “Lots of stuff laying around, generally cluttered?”
Pekin: “Did you interview any of the people in the house?”
Pekin: “What about Mr. France’s girlfriend?”
Hoyle: “No sir.”
Pekin: “Take any part in the search?”
Hoyle: “Not in the room where Mr. France was. I searched a part of the east bedroom, then someone else took over.”
Pekin: “Did you take any photographs?”
Hoyle: “I did not.”
Pekin: “Do you know who did?”
Hoyle: “That would have been the responsibility of the case agent, Officer Lunceford.”
Pekin: “Any idea how long any of these people had been there?”
Hoyle: “No sir.”
Pekin: “And when the search was performed, Mr. France was outside the room?”
Hoyle: “Yes sir.”
Pekin: “Nothing further.”
Jason Chapman was called, and after the preliminaries of introduction, he told the jury how he searched the room and found a small .380 caliber automatic handgun in a backpack; and that the same backpack also contained a letter, addressed to Michael France, from his lawyer in a previous case, Franklin D. Kane of the McGuire-Woods law firm.
Pekin: “Who put the letter in the bag [backpack]?”
Chapman: “I have no idea.”
Pekin: “Who put the gun in the bag?”
Chapman: “No idea.”
Pekin: “Officer Lunceford told you to search the room?”
Pekin: “Did you find a wallet in the bag?”
Chapman: “No, I don’t recall one.”
Pekin: “You took this photograph of the bag?”
Pekin: “Ever take a photograph of the whole room?”
Pekin: “Of the bed?”
Pekin: “Did you find any other indicia of Mr. France’s – other than this letter in the bag – anything at all of his in the room?”
Chapman: “Not that I recall.”
Pekin: “There had been a woman in the room?”
Chapman: “That’s what I was told, but it was empty when I arrived.”
Pekin: “A lot of personal items in the room?”
Pekin: “Nothing further.”
Eyster on redirect: “Did you find any exculpating evidence in the room – anything at all to suggest the gun was not Michael France’s?”
Chapman: “Not that I recall.”
I missed the closing arguments but it seemed reasonable (by my definition of that word) to infer that defense would maintain prosecution had not met the burden of proof and a reasonable doubt remained, at least in one juror’s mind, at the end of the day, that the gun wasn’t Michael France’s.
We understand the DA intends to retry the case.