Nearly two years have passed since sheriff’s Deputies Danny Oliver and Michael Davis Jr. were killed in a bloody, two-county rampage, and now the trial of the suspect in their deaths is likely to be delayed by election-year politics.
With Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones – Oliver’s boss – running for Congress, lawyers for suspect Luis Enriquez Monroy Bracamontes won a four-month extension last week allowing them to file a request to move the trial out of Sacramento by Jan. 17.
Public defenders Norman Dawson and Jeffrey Barbour had been facing a Sept. 30 deadline to file the motion for a change of venue, which has long been anticipated because of the massive press coverage of the October 2014 crime spree.
They were granted the extension by Sacramento Superior Court Judge Steve White after arguing that Jones’ candidacy and other election-year factors required moving the deadline past the Nov. 8 election.
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“We are seeking a change of venue based upon extensive pretrial publicity,” Bracamontes’ lawyers wrote in their motion. “The lives of a large percentage of the potential jury pool were affected by the incidents in this case.
“The status of the victims, as law enforcement officers, and the issue of an undocumented immigrant charged with their murders, have highly charged political overtones.”
The defense noted that Jones reacted to the deaths of Oliver, a Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy, and Davis, a Placer County deputy, by releasing a video message to President Barack Obama “demanding a change in immigration policy” because Bracamontes had returned repeatedly to the United States from Mexico illegally.
“That video received over 448,000 views on YouTube,” the defense attorneys wrote, adding that Jones’ Republican campaign against incumbent U.S. Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, is likely to focus on Bracamontes and the dead deputies as a “major theme.”
The status of the victims, as law enforcement officers, and the issue of an undocumented immigrant charged with their murders, have highly charged political overtones.
Defense lawyers for Luis Enriquez Bracamontes
“Sheriff Jones is running for Congress in District 7, which is approximately half of the population of Sacramento County,” the defense argued, noting that media coverage “would blanket the entire region.”
The case already has generated national headlines, with the daylong rampage through Sacramento and Placer counties in 2014 wounding civilians and officers, forcing schools into lockdown and spawning a massive manhunt that ended with the arrest of Bracamontes and his wife, Janelle Monroy, near Auburn.
Since then, Bracamontes’ own actions have helped generate even more notoriety, including the court appearance during which he blurted out that he was guilty and wanted to be executed, and a lengthy process that ultimately determined he was mentally competent to face trial.
Monroy could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted in the case, but Bracamontes faces the death penalty, which further complicates matters because there are two competing initiatives on the November ballot that would eliminate capital punishment in California or attempt to speed up the process of executing inmates.
“The conversations about the death penalty, Sheriff Jones’ campaign, and the widespread knowledge in Sacramento about this case and a local fallen officer that patrolled this county form a unique blend of factors influencing attitudes,” the defense argued.
Prosecutors disagreed, arguing in court papers that claims Jones will use the case in his campaign are “speculative and debatable.”
“While it is true that Sheriff Jones stated during his congressional candidacy announcement that Deputy Oliver’s murder was a catalyst for his congressional bid, there has been scarce reference to the facts of the case or to the defendant since that announcement,” they wrote.
Further complicating matters is the fact that, depending on how the election goes, California may not have a death penalty once Bracamontes finally faces trial.
White agreed to allow the defense to postpone filing its change of venue motion until January, which gives the lawyers time to have jury consultants conduct surveys of the potential jury pool.
The judge has declined so far to postpone the March 22 trial date set for the suspects, however.
The defense has filed a separate motion seeking a continuance in the trial, but that remains under seal. The prosecution opposes such a delay, arguing that “there are roughly seven months before the commencement of the jury trial.”
“As this crime was committed in October 2014, defense counsel has had approximately 22 months to investigate both guilt and penalty phase issues,” they wrote.
Despite the time that has passed, another delay seems likely given the complications of the case and the fact that Monroy’s defense attorney, Pete Kmeto, is in another trial in Martinez that may continue for months.
The only certainty is that the defense intends to try to move the trial out of Sacramento County and that prosecutors will object.
The defense lawyers note in court documents that they met in July with prosecutors “in an effort to come to an agreement on the venue change.”
“The prosecution informed us that it will be contesting any request to change venue,” they added.