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A .357 Will Trump A .22 Every Time

The Honorable Jonathan Lehan will be going on vacation this week. This is big news, because when his vacation ends, March 4th, his retirement begins. He won’t be back at the Ten Mile Court.

For 20 years Judge Lehan presided over the courts on the Coast, mostly at Fort Bragg, but once a month tooling down Highway One to the bowling alley courtroom at Point Arena, as well. During that time he made quite a name for himself as a happening kind of guy, snorting up miles of white lines and collecting an impressive number of DUIs. But his honor's most famous escapades were sexual. Lehan was given to disrobing in front of his female clerks at the Fort Bragg courthouse — flashing them, weenie wagging, as the urban cops call exhibitionism of this kind.

Governor Jerry Brown will have to appoint someone to replace Judge Lehan, but in the meantime Judge Clayton Brennan will preside over the Ten Mile Court in Fort Bragg. The Governor has three years to make the appointment, and the feeling is that he’ll leave the slot vacant for as long as possible in order to save the state some money. A lot of local lawyers hope to get the appointment, including former DA Meredith Lintott. Also, Jone Lemos of Fort Brag; Mark Kalina, also of Fort Bragg; Kit Elliott, of Ukiah; and Dave Basner, currently serving as a magistrate.

Meanwhile, Judge Ron Brown, seriously ill with cancer, has also retired, meaning there are now two superior court vacancies, which may account for that rather frenzied look on the faces of eligible local attorneys. The job is for life and it pays $185,000 a year. People have been murdered for less, a lot less.

Judge Richard Kalustian, visiting from Los Angeles, has been filling in for Brown in Courtroom B.  With the help of Court Clerk Bonnie Miller and Deputy DA Steve Jackson, Judge Kalustian was managing well enough. Although when a judge is asking the DA what he should do, it tends to make the defendants uneasy.

There was some confusion about getting a hearing set for the defendants in a recent home invasion in Laytonville. Apparently, some guys thinking to rob the North County premises of the love drug had boldly entered a home south of town armed with a .22, which the lady of the house immediately trumped with a .357, shooting one of the thieves dead. The others would-be bandidos — Noah Shin, Chris Shin and Tyrone Bell — were arrested later the same night. They are being charged with provoking a murder, also known as the felony murder law. You're present and someone dies, you might as well have pulled the trigger yourself.

Deputy DA Steve Jackson was standing in for the regular prosecutor, Rayburn Killion, but the visiting judge didn’t like the arrangement, and there was some delay while Killion was found. A court date for the surviving Laytonville home invaders was set for February 18.

Then Mr. Carlos White stood to be sentenced on the very common charge of 11350 – more commonly known as tweeking. White's lawyer, Public Defender Linda Thompson, had made a deal with Jackson that involved White getting probation rather than prison. Kalustian was very pleased with Mr. White’s probation report and said so. “I don’t see that many come back from probation that look as good as yours does, Mr. White.”

Ms. Thompson wanted to know if the jail time was going to be 150 or 180 days. Kalustian said, “Well, that depends on whether I run the extra 30 days consecutively or concurrently. And I think I’ll run it concurrently since he got such a good probation report. But remember Mr. White, you’ll lose all your credits if you don’t complete the treatment program.”

Billy Rickman was next. Formerly of Philo and a standout high school football player of whom the editor of this paper says, “I don't care what Billy's accused of. He's a good guy. Always has been.” Rickman was across the hall in Judge Henderson’s court. Henderson hates methamphetamine. He sentenced Rickman to five years in the state prison. The DA was only asking for two years, but Rickman had a prior conviction and the crank he got caught with automatically added three more.

At this point in the proceedings a man and woman got up and left in disgust. On their way out, they slammed down a large packet of documents on the floor in front of an older woman with a cane who was seated by the door. This little drama drew my attention, and a closer look revealed the package was addressed to Billy Rickman. Perhaps it was letters of reference on Rickman’s behalf. At any rate, the older woman with the cane struggled to pick it up and Rickman’s lawyer, Eric Rennert, came over and took possession of it, saying it was probably the transcript from the preliminary hearing.

Mr. Rennert opened the package and put the contents (which appeared to be letters) into Rickman’s file. I only then realized that Rickman hadn’t actually been sentenced yet; the five years was merely the terms of the plea arrangement. The letters in the packet would go to probation and perhaps Billy Rickman would get a glowing report like the one Mr. White had gotten.

The “Blood In The Vineyard” lawsuit (as we called it last year) against McDowell Valley Vineyards may be going back to court. The trial ended in the Hopland winery’s favor last fall, but one of the jurors has come forward with some allegations of misconduct on the part of another juror, and the lawyers for plaintiff Nick Fross, who was stabbed in the chest and nearly killed at a party on the McDowell property, were back in court asking for a new trial.

Judge John Behnke took the request under submission, but didn’t seem particularly inclined to grant the motion for a new trial. He noted that the motion was late, legally speaking, and there was a question of “admissibility.”

“There’s certain things I have to do,” Behnke said. “It’s a three-step process to determine 1.) if there was juror misconduct, 2.) if it is admissible, and 3.) if the conduct was prejudicial.”

Mr. O’Neil, the lawyer for the McDowell Winery said it wasn’t admissible and that was the end of it, but the judge thought he had some discretion on the issue, so he let the lawyers for Mr. Foss speak.

Ms. Michelle Zyromski, Mr. Foss's attorney, was soft-spoken and hard to hear in the big courtroom, but she seemed to be saying that the juror in question had been pounding on the table, insisting that the Crawfords [owners of the vineyards] were fine people and beyond reproach. That sort of thing.

Mr. O’Neil wondered if conduct like pounding on a table would be admissible. He said, “Speculation on another juror’s state of mind is not admissible.”

Judge Behnke tended to agree, saying he didn’t feel comfortable “micromanaging the jurors.”

Mr. Konesec, another of the plaintiff’s lawyers, said the instruction regarding the property owner’s responsibilities hadn’t been adequately emphasized.

Behnke said he gave the instructions with equivalent emphasis, and that he wasn’t about to say, “Oh and be sure to look at this instruction — that would be improper. I try to read them all the same way. Based on the limited information I have… I just received the Brannigan declaration last night. I want to think about it for a while, so I’ll take it under submission.”

The motion was untimely, the judge reluctant to overturn a jury’s verdict — nine of the 12 jurors had absolved the Crawfords of any liability. One juror, named Brannigan, had alleged misconduct.

Behnke said, “I need to consider whether there’s any kind of exception where I can do that.”


  1. February 10, 2011

    Superior Court Judge a “job for life?”
    Didn’t know that.

  2. Harvey Reading February 10, 2011

    According to the state constitution, superior court judges serve six-year terms and must stand for election, or reelection. In reality, they keep getting elected, time after time …

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