The Facts Are Elastic

“Lawyers never lie, McEwen, but you may sometimes get that impression because the prosecution tends to exaggerate and the defense always minimizes.”

– District Attorney C. David Eyster, back when he was a defense lawyer

The jury was hung on the most serious charge in the People v. Wright and Bradford home invasion case introduced in last week’s paper, and it appears the charge of kidnapping for purposes of robbery will be refiled against the two defendants, Diontae Wright and Christopher Taylor, who were found guilty of robbery in concert of an inhabited dwelling and assault with a firearm, along with two counts of reckless evasion. They were acquitted on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon, a vehicle, on one of the police officers, Willits Police Officer Curtis Labus.

Justin Slagle

But the full facts of the case will remain known only to those involved – and both parties have an interest keeping it that way. Before the trial began the star witness contacted the AVA with the somewhat menacing offer to tell us what really happened. We declined to hear what the “smart-mouth” – Judge John Behnke’s description of Justin Slagle – had to say, knowing full-well he intended to browbeat us with his story, his version of the "facts." And this is pretty much what Slagle did on the stand during the trial. He said that three black men — not the descriptives Slagle used the first time he was in court — robbed him. Slagle said he woke him up on his mother’s couch at about one in the morning with a shotgun in his face, and was soon lying on the floor along with his mother and brother as the three black men went about robbing the place.

It was Justin Slagle’s testimony that the three black men had come to his mother’s house entirely at random, just happened by at one am. Judge Behnke said early on in the pretrial motions that Slagle’s story was not credible, that home invasions of pot growers “didn't happen in a vacuum,” and no one ever really believed the three young men from Indiana chose the Slagle home at random. 

Three guys from Indiana: Bradford, Taylor, Wright

The defense maintained that the three robbers had been taken to the victim’s house by a Mexican male adult called “Tio” along with another white male adult, “Josh” – and a third Mexican male adult, Hugo Mercado. Tio, Josh – or Tyler, depending on a variety of angles drove a silver or gray sedan as they led the three bandits red Jeep to the victim’s house. After the robbery, a silver or gray sedan came down out of Brooktrails followed by the red Jeep. Whoever was in the silver or gray sedan was never made known in court – and as both patrol cars went after the red Jeep, it will remain a mystery.

Van Slagle

In his closing arguments, DA Eyster called these three other men, Tio, Josh (or Tyler), and Hugo, “ghosts.” But Sally Gurule, the mother of Justin Slagle and Van Slagle, was growing marijuana at the house, a house at the end of a cul de sac sitting behind a locked gate. How three black adult males from Indiana who had never been to Willits before found this place, knew it had marijuana inside, made their way through the gate and into the house without breaking in is just a little more of a stretch than any reasonable person can believe.

Add to this the “fact” that Ms. Gurule said she had a Mexican “helper” who sometimes came by to water the plants – this was October, and the Mexican helper had last been at her home a week or two earlier when Ms. G. kicked him down a third of the crop. I’m no professional grower but I’ve been on enough grows to know that the last thing you do in late summer is put water on a pot plant – it just isn’t done, unless you're growing hemp. And to give someone a third of 25 plants for a little watering is astoundingly generous. In short, none of it was credible.

 A particularly glaring absurdity was Diontae Wright saying he’d given “Tio” – somebody he hardly knew, he said, $10,000 in cash money, then another $5,000. Tio’s up front cash now with the mysterious Tio he sat in the red jeep doing “school-work” on his computer while his sometime friends went in to visit with Ms. Gurule and sons.

And when Hugo came back out of the house and took a shotgun from the trunk of the car, Diontae Wright said he thought maybe Hugo was going to trade it for some weed! The 15 thou cash wasn’t enough, and now Tio’s going to pawn a shotgun to make up the change? 

Justin Slagle said he popped in to his mom’s house around midnight and at first couldn’t remember the combination to the lock on the gate to her house. He remained at the gate for a while pondering access although there was a trail around the gate. Then all of a sudden, out of the blue, he remembered the combination and drove his truck in, parked it, relocked the gate. By then he estimated it was around one in the morning. Mom had gone to bed, his brother was in the shower, so he, Justin, turned on the TV and fell asleep on the couch. Mom, when she took the stand, said Justin came in before 10 o’clock and had dinner with her, then she went to bed.

Justin said he was scared for his life when the three armed men marching mom and bro into the closet at gunpoint – but as soon as he heard the front door close, he exited the closet and gave chase – in his mother’s car – unarmed himself, he said, no longer afraid of getting shot.

It was DA Eyster’s theory that the defendants had taken mention of the silver or gray sedan from discovery and invented these “ghosts” out of that; Eyster never said the car did not exist, only the ghosts – and how Hugo Mercado’s driver’s license got in the red Jeep with the other defendants’ driver’s licenses went unexplained. As Deputy Zack Woida pointed out there was no place for a third person to sit in the Jeep due to the stuff stacked in the seat behind the driver. There was never any explanation for the pistol found under the driver’s seat, either. And what happened to the $15,000?

There was recently a simplistic post making the rounds on Facebook (it was also put up on MCT) that said, “If one party says it’s raining out and the other party says it’s not raining – your job, as a journalist, is not to quote each party, but to get up and go look out the window and see if it’s raining or not.” That’s a paraphrase, but close enough, as it is taken from the lawyer’s commonplace explanation of circumstantial evidence, repeated to jurors over and over all over the country every day of the week. If a little guy in a raincoat comes in wet, that is circumstantial evidence that it is raining out – but as defense will inevitably point out, it is not conclusive proof, because the guy could have just walked through a sprinkler – and, sorry, but looking out the window doesn’t always answer, either, since somebody could be on the roof spraying water over the eaves. The point being, the facts of a case are not always cut and dried – and whatever went on in that house, Justin Slagle has a version that it is in his interest to promote; just as the defendants would have you believe they were innocent of robbery and had not threatened to kill their three victims.

Now let us consider the verdicts. In my earlier report, The Truth Forsooth, Who’s Telling The Truth, I ended with saying the trial was done by Friday, which I reasonably expected it would be, as the judge was giving jury instructions when I left to deal with my flooded Ukiah home. However, the trial continued on Monday, went into Tuesday, and the verdict came in late Wednesday after I’d left again. So on Thursday I asked the court reporter what the verdict was and she told me the jury had hung on the kidnapping charge, the first three counts – one count for each victim – marching them into the closet; that they had been found guilty of robbery of an occupied dwelling (I left out some of the legal description, considering it unnecessary for a newspaper report) and that the jury found the defendants Not Guilty of personal use of a firearm, a Special Allegation that usually enhances prison time, which indicates the jury didn’t believe Justin Slagle’s testimony that he saw each of the three black men with a gun at one time or another. I don’t think I was mistaken on this but apparently I neglected to say that they were both found guilty of assault with a firearm – because I was confused, perhaps understandably, how they could both have assaulted anyone with a gun if they didn’t use one. Also, I left out the guilty verdicts on the two reckless evasion counts. Again, this was a result of confusion on how the legalese of the charging sheet works, and made more confusing by a number of “lesser included” charges that the jury could choose from if they were not convinced of the main charges.

As to the charge that Mr. Wright had intentionally run the red Jeep into Officer Curtis Labus’s patrol vehicle, both defendants were found Not Guilty. But by then it was fairly clear that only Wright was in the Jeep – notwithstanding the “fact” that Hugo Mercado was supposed to have been in there also.

My editors and some of the readers often become impatient with me – to put it mildly – that I can’t get the facts straight. They look at simplistic notions on Facebook, like the one I mentioned above, and dismiss me as a big storyteller, trying to make this reporter into some kind of literary figure by twisting the facts all out of shape. But all I have to say to any of that is look at the other newspapers, see how they cover court cases – if they cover them at all – and I think you’ll agree that about as far as they dare go is (1) get a quote from prosecution, which is usually, if not always, exaggerated, about how terrible the rainstorm was; and (2) get another observation from defense maintaining that no, it’s not raining at all. And then, all you sticklers for the "facts," if you really think the "facts" are always so cut-and-dried, get yourself a notebook and pen – tape-recorders are not allowed in courtrooms – and go in there and see what you can make of what you see and hear. Try it sometime, if just for entertainment, then get back to me with the facts.

PS. The defense scenario was that “Tio” was growing the weed on Sally Gurule’s property as a “share-cropper” meaning that he, Tio, would get a third of the crop for doing all the work (not just coming by to “water” once in a while). This was actually plausible, because that’s how exploitative land owners can be towards people who grow on their property. And remember this, because I’ve seen it written in the AVA before, editorially, that those late summer and fall rains are just so nice for the local weed crops – which is totally wrong-headed, because you never ever water pot after it flowers and that’s why there’s always such a scramble to put up tarps and Visqueen if any rain comes in late summer and early fall before harvest (The Grand Dame of Mendo bud, Pebbles Trippet even used tiny umbrellas for each bud!) – not to mention the risk of mold. Justin Slagle of course would have been well aware of this arrangement – whether he approved or not – that is, the share-cropper deal with “Tio,” and that’s no doubt why the combinations on the lock were there – so Tio could come and go – and as to the rest … Who knows, Uncle — “Quien sabe, Tio? – only your share-cropper knows for sure. But it seems plausible, if not more than likely, that Uncle Tio felt he had more coming than a third, and came at night with backup to take it at gunpoint. 

2 Responses to "The Facts Are Elastic"

  1. Betsy Cawn   March 17, 2019 at 7:54 am

    Dear Mr. McEwan,

    I very much appreciate the difficulties you encounter in attempting to accurately portray something that happens in real time, delivered by posturing and pontificating persons in the courtroom. I carry spiral-bound “evidence” notebooks with me to every meeting, attempt to grasp/interpret/respond do and simultaneously document the exchanges and information gleaned so painstakingly. Yet that process is one I use as substantiation of future explanations with great sensitivity.

    My most certain declarations of “provable” statements I might cite (on radio broadcasts) are those derived from watching and “transcribing” carefully the video-viewable meetings of our County Board of Supervisors, where I do my utmost to accurately capture the very words themselves, later extracting key points to refer to on a topic of interest to our listeners. If they want to correct me, I’m glad to have the help, but so far (in, for example, three plus years of producing the only disaster response/relief/recovery air-borne discussion in any media hereabouts) few have any betterment to contribute.

    I especially appreciate the clarity with which you describe the results, explicating the changes in thinking that can occur after the conclusion is revealed, of selections made on the fly, of necessity, that turn out to be of lesser importance and or irrelevant completely. The process of triaging all the “incoming” and grabbing the salient points quickly is magnified by the arcane language of the courts. I WISH I knew what those guys and gals are saying, mumble, mumble, hummmmm, party in the first part, bibbety, bobbety, boo!

    Our newest Judge, David Markham, was once kind enough to give me a couple of hours, on his dime, to help me grasp the process occurring in the “misdemeanor” court (I was, at the time, advocating for an older adult accused of an absurd offense, and had been to court with her four times, each a month apart, and each accompanied by no production of the charges, in writing, and the police report, so that she could try to choose appropriate legal defense options). He was most kind and did not disabuse me of the sense that the process is designed to stretch out the length of time the public defender’s contracts are allowed.

    My cohort was charged with Obstruction of Business, PC 602.1(a)) after she was pulled out of a meeting of the Area Agency on Aging’s Governing Board at the senior center, while sitting calmly among a group of protestors of a recent senior center board action (I among them, having authored their formal grievance, in accordance with state code requirements), handcuffed and driven to the jail for booking. [Of course, there’s tons of “backstory” that a judicious thinker must evaluate, pro and con and who did what to who, but that’s the gist of reason for her situation.]

    Finally, on the day of her trial (having plead not guilty) there was a first-time discussion between the DA, the PD, and the judge, in a side office of some kind, and the judge dismissed the charges. Five months, mysterious and intimidating, for the sake of how much money? A second opinion was sought, offered by a competing attorney who never mentioned billing during the discussions but later attempted to claim exorbitant costs for merely leaving her office a block away, stand in the side office with the DA and the judge, while the DA read the pre-trial documents for the first time, and make the return trip. Total time? An hour?

    I met with the then-holder of the County’s public defender contract, Stephen Carter (who later killed himself) after seeking out the obscure “Public Defender Contract Oversight Committee” run by the bailbondsman-supervisor of District 5, Rob Brown until that very morning I attended (gee, he had to suddenly “step down” from the assigned chair position), to complain about the process and mistreatment by the originally assigned PD, who I also met with to help my co-worker plead for the opportunity to see the actual arrest record. When he discovered how little money she had (former cook, disabled husband, over 60) he was hasty to exit the tiny closet that the court provides for private consultations — it’s about the size of a pair of phone booths.

    So, when you give us your best shot at describing something so complicated as a court proceeding, with the roles and responsibilities involved in the intricate “actions” of the actors on all sides, you give us a blow-by-blow commentary of a system that is as obscure to me as television and video games. Consuming, digesting, and regurgitating the grit and grunge of one of the most critical events in a person’s life — being on trial, for whatever reason and however correct or misconstrued — provide our only insights as to what “measure of justice” there may be in the bowels of the institution. No wonder you drink! (I’d join you, lad, there’s many a pilsner ahead for you but I seldom get to Ukiah anymore. Cheers, though, and thanks for the dedication.)

    Reply
  2. Bruce McEwen   March 17, 2019 at 11:01 am

    You are very considerate to go to such lengths to thank me, and I want you to know I appreciate it. A compliment coming from such a dedicated champion of decency and fairness as you are, Ms. Cawn, is truly an honor, a high honor, something I can take enough pride in that I’m liable to go around boasting about it, especially after I’ve had a few!

    Reply

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