Children, even adult children, can be so adorable when they revolt against the conventions of their parents. Readers of a certain age will remember scandalizing their parents by dropping F-bombs at the dinner table, for instance. But as the novelty wore off the F word, as it came into common usage as a versatile adverb and adjective, as well as expanding into acceptance, even in mixed company, its former use as an expletive, it lost its shock value — contemporary parents consider their two-year-olds to be prodigies when their pre-schoolers come home throwing f-bombs as they go. Older kids soon figured out that stronger measures were called for to get the desired shock effect. And that, my progressive friends, is how a generation of champions for the cause of civil rights and equal rights became the dismayed parents of a generation whose music (rap) and culture (hip-hop) came to refer to women (even themselves) as “hos” or “bishes” and to black men (especially in reference to themselves) as “niggas.”
It is a hard irony to adapt to for us older folks and that is perhaps why it took a whole week to pick a jury for a couple of young black men from Indiana charged with a home invasion robbery in Willits. Enter Christopher Bradford and Diontae Wright.
The robbery happened back in October of 2017, and a lot of things have changed since then. Marijuana has become legal, and a new law relaxing the rules concerning the personnel files for police officers has gone into effect. Both changes in the law have had an effect on this case.
In the first place, there was much less emphasis on the possession for sale of marijuana aspect of the case, which was readily admitted to by defense; and secondly, there was an attempt to suggest that the deputies and police officers involved were racists, racially motivated, and this occasioned a Pitchess motion, brought by defense a few weeks ago (the story is in the AVA archive), which was denied.
Then a Pitchess motion was brought by the prosecution, naming the investigator for the defense team, a private investigator and former cop who had been the subject of an internal investigation by the Santa Rosa Police Department — this time the motion was granted, and all the private eye’s hard work was bowdlerized. The details were not made public, however.
The first Pitchess motion, the one brought by defense and subsequently denied by Judge John Behnke, stemmed from an unfortunate use of the N-word on the stand during the preliminary hearing, wherein an earlier defense lawyer, Al Kubanis, had provoked the victim-witness, Justin Slagel, into using the proscribed word — in its hip-hop form, as to when Mr. Slagel, lying on the floor with a shotgun trained on his head, overheard one of the robbers say to one of the others, “Hurry up, nigga, we only got five minutes.”
District Attorney David Eyster, who was prosecuting the case, had apparently advised Mr. Slagle not to repeat the word during the trial, as it was liable to offend the jurors. But it was later used by Slagle’s mother, Ms. Sally Gurule. At first Ms. Gurule said, “He [the defendant] used a slang word,” but when the lawyers asked for clarification she said, “nigga.” Judge Behnke pointed out that the defendant also used the same word, but the new defense lawyer for Mr. Wright, Curtis Briggs, of Pier Five (Tony Serra’s law firm in San Francisco) said, “That’s different, your honor.”
Later when Mr. Wright took the stand we learned that he was a well-spoken, articulate even, and very personable college student from a middle-class suburb in Indiana, and that his mother, a successful businesswoman, most likely would never have approved of such talk. The offensive word certainly had no relation in any of the rest of Wright’s vocabulary, his pronunciation being every bit as precise and formal as anything you would hear on NPR’s Morning Edition. And so the use of the word was clearly an affectation — if it was used by him at all, for it was Mr. Wright’s defense that he had never gone into the Slagle’s house; he said he stayed out in the car doing school-work on his computer and had no idea a robbery was going down.
And so the whole case against Wright was based on Justin Slagle’s testimony that it was Diontae Wright who held the gun to his head. It was also Justin Slagle who identified Chris Bradford as one of the robbers — along with the third, Michael D’Angelo Taylor, who had confessed and pled guilty, and was not being tried with the others. Ms. Gurule said she never got a look at any of the faces, as it was dark and she was made to lie face down on the floor with her two sons, Justin and Van Slagle. She said her son Van had “mental issues.” Van Slagle was not called to testify.
Justin Slagle took the stand first to tell how he’d come home to his mother’s house — his own house had burned down in the fire storms of October that year — after getting off work as an equipment operator doing clean-up in the wake of the fires. He let himself into his mother’s Brooktrails home and went to sleep on the couch with the television on. Shortly, he was awakened with a shotgun in his face and made to lie face-down on the floor, while his mother was brought from her bedroom and his brother, Van Slagle, from the shower, and made to lie alongside his brother and his mother clad only in a towel, while Mr. Taylor went through the house turning out drawers and demanding to know, “Where’s the money?!”
“There isn’t any money,” Ms. Gurule told them. Mr. Bradford was busy taking plastic bins of marijuana from the house and dumping it into black plastic bags — Bradford would later claim that he was just taking marijuana that he and the others had paid for, that he had paid $2500 for two and a half pounds, and that Wright had paid $10,000 down and another $5000, subsequently, for an estimated 15 pounds. This money, they claimed, had been paid to a guy named Tio, who did some occasional watering for Ms. Gurule. “Tio,” along with some other characters —alleged (by defense) to have been involved — never came to court, so whether they were really involved, or even existed, would have to be decided by the jury.
If that sounds too mystical, stand by for more far-out stuff, because an expert on memory was due to testify for the defense, a Dr. Davis, but the rainy weather made for delays and by the time Dr. Davis was able to get a flight out of Tahoe, my own domicile had suffered from the floodwaters and I was busy mucking out. But I’ve seen “doctors” from this “discipline” testify in court several times before, and I know the salient points of their argument, which is that we have a blind spot right in front of our eyes, and that we actually don’t ever see anything but fleeting glimpses of what’s right in front of us, and that it is our mind, our highly impressionable mind, that puts it all together, and convinces us of what we think we have seen.
Essentially, these memory experts are no different than Carlos Casteñeda, Aleistair Crowley or Balthazar Braithwaite (my own favorite Seer), in that they would have us realize that the world is not real, that the eyes are in fact veils, and no eye-witness can be believed. The effect these “experts” have on jurors is usually more entertaining than informative, and I’m sorry I missed Dr. Davis’s visit to Ukiah, but l shouldn’t feel too bad since it all would have been only an illusion anyway, since, according to her doctrine, my memory is too tricky, my eyes too deceitful, and my stupid stubborn mind already made up.
Given the nature of the case, it being Slagle’s word against the defendants, the only thing left to consider was the police work. At 1:30 am on October 27th a 911 call came in from Primrose Avenue in Brooktrails that a woman and her two sons had been robbed at gunpoint by three black male adults. There being only one practical way out of the Brooktrails area, Officer Curtis Labus of the Willits PD stationed himself at the bottom of Sherwood Road, where it comes down the hill and joins Main Street. He was soon joined by Corporal D’Orazio, who parked on the other side of the street and spotlighted the cars that came down. After two or three cars went by, D’Orazio spotlighted a red Jeep with two black males in the front — he couldn’t see who was in the back, and the two patrol cars fell in behind the red Jeep, and turned on the emergency lights and sirens to stop the suspect vehicle. But the red Jeep kept going and turned on East Valley Road.
There was a silver sedan in front of the red Jeep, but it soon pulled over, and when it did the red Jeep went into the on-coming lane and opened up the throttle, roaring out East Valley Road, as tossed bags of pot flew out the window, and only slowed down on Bray and Center Valley, where two black male adults got out and ran. Officer Labus kept after the red Jeep and Corporal D’Orazio went after the guys on foot.
Labus finally caught the red Jeep and later found Diontae Wright, the driver, who jumped out and ran, into the yard of a residence near Recreation Park. D’Orazio found Michael Taylor hiding in another yard, back where the first two jumped out; and later, at about 2:30 am, a bloodhound was brought in to track the third subject. A backpack had been found nearby and this “scent article” was shown to Chase, the bloodhound, by his handler, Deputy Ryan Murdaugh. A part-time Willits PD Officer (and full-time prosecutor) Joshua Rosenfeld, went along as armed back-up for Chase and Murdaugh, due to the fact that they were following a fugitive from what had been reported as an armed robbery. The trackers ran into an aggressive herd of cattle, however, and Chase had to be taken out before some of the more aggressive heifers attacked him. (Willits cattle are a tough lot and don’t much like being bothered in the early hours unless you’re bringing hay.)
Shortly after daybreak, Officer Bennet found Christopher Bradford as Bradford was walking down the road a short distance from where Chase had given up the chase. Bradford claimed to just be out walking, a local guy, having spent the night with his girlfriend — unfortunately for Bradford, his Indiana driver’s license had been found in the red Jeep.
On Wednesday, halfway through the second week of the trial, the defense made a motion to have some serious parts of the charges taken out; that being the part called kidnapping, wherein the DA maintained that the Slagles had been held at gunpoint and then marched to a closet where they all thought they were about to be murdered, execution-style, so that they could never identify the robbers.
Kevin Davenport, who represented Chris Bradford, told the judge that this was too complicated and abstract of a legal issue to burden the jurors with. Judge Behnke disagreed and let the charges stand. If convicted of all 10 of the charges, this kidnapping and marching the victims to the closet, “causing grave psychological damage” will add substantially to the sentencing.
Thursday was taken up with first Wright and then Bradford taking the stand to convince the jury that their motives were pure, that they were willing to pay for the marijuana, that they meant no one any harm, that neither of them had a gun, that Michael Taylor and a guy named Hugo Mercado were the ones with guns, and that they — Wright and Bradford — were caught up in a drug bust and the worst they did was try to get away.
Now, the defense had done what it could to make a liar out of Justin Slagle, by confronting him with what’s called “prior inconsistent statements” from the transcript of the prelim. This is a routine exercise for lawyers. The answers you gave on direct are compared to the answers you gave during the “Interview” with the cops, and those during the prelim — they are rarely, if ever, exactly the same — and then the lawyer will cluck his tongue dismissively, roll his eyes archly at the jurors, and otherwise try to put you on the defensive — ideally, the lawyer would like to see you blurt out some foul language and go into a rage, which explains why the bailiff is usually standing nearby the witness stand during cross-examination in a case like this.
So Mr. Slagle was put through this “prior inconsistent statements” process of impeachment; and then it was the prosecutor’s turn to do it to the defendants — and keep in mind that defendants do not have to take the stand; they don’t have to submit to this kind of thing and the jury will be adamantly instructed not to make anything of it, one way or another. It is one of our prime constitutional rights and should not be waived without weighty deliberation. And even then it can be damned foolhardy. The temptation to get up there and just explain things to the jurors is strong, and it all seems so simple, but it’s not simple, it’s very complex, it takes a lot of practice, and you have none, no practice at all.
Slagle had been on the stand at least once before, and he came off better the second time, so it is obvious that practice counts for something. But Wright and Bradford were frightfully mauled by DA Eyster, and both came away looking resigned, to put it mildly. Mr. Wright told the jury he had lied to the cops, he admitted it, he said it was dumb, he shouldn’t have done it, but there it was, but now he knew better, “honestly, honest to God, now I’m telling the truth.”
Eyster would read from the transcript: “You told the officers that ‘honestly, honest to God, I’m telling the truth” — etc. Every example Eyster chose had a similar phrase prefacing it: “The honest-to-God-truth,” “To be honest,” “In all honesty,” “Like, I shit you not,” “Honestly,” until it was like a “tell” in a poker-player’s bluff — every time he lied, he’d used a similar phrase — and so of course he had no assertions left to give the jury that he wasn’t lying now, having admitted to so many lies that had been uttered with emphatic professions of truth.
Mr. Bradford didn’t fare much better. My feeling was they’d done themselves more harm than good by taking the stand. The strength of their case lay in the possibility that Justin Slagle was mistaken. The lawyers knew this. I once overheard Attorney Briggs telling Diontae Wright to “calm down, don’t get agitated, we’re going to win.” The DA has to prove his case beyond a reasonable doubt. Again, if I may use the poker analogy: The dealer never hits 17, he lets you take the chance on busting, and the odds ride with him. This is why even a lawyer never goes to court without a lawyer — so you don’t get all full of yourself and decide to take the stand and make the jury understand what a great guy you are — so you don’t take a hit when you’ve got 17 and the odds are the next card is a five or higher.
Cops take the stand more than anyone else in our society, and they know better than any of us that the less said the better — whereas we all get up there and never know when to stop — until the judge stops us (from injuring ourselves). The worst I ever saw was the editor of High Times Magazine, a very eloquent, articulate fellow, but by the time he came down from the stand he was absolutely livid with shame like he’d had his pants pulled down in public by Deputy DA Kitty Houston.
On Friday, the case went to the jury. A verdict is expected this week.