‘This came as an absolute surprise to the defense. … I’m pleased on behalf of my client and happy the DA’s Office did the right thing,” said Sacramento attorney Jerry Shapiro.
“It’s a very rare thing to happen” said JoAnn Virata, a Sacramento County assistant public defender.
The two attorneys were talking about a startling decision last month by the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office to drop all charges against their clients in a felony drug trial that had been close to going to the jury for a verdict.
As a juror who had spent all or part of eight days involved with this case, I was sure surprised. When court recessed on Wednesday afternoon, March 4, Superior Court Judge Curtis Fiorini said he hoped the trial would conclude in two court days. I thought I’d soon be returning to hear the defense team’s case, followed by final arguments, legal instructions and then deliberations on the fate of the two defendants.
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Imagine my surprise when I received a telephone call from the bailiff on Friday afternoon. He said my services would no longer be needed because the matter had been resolved. He said he could not disclose what had happened.
My journalistic curiosity kicked in. I wanted to know what had happened to the two defendants. Thomas Jackson, represented by Shapiro, and Johnny Gates, represented by Virata, were both charged with drug possession and possession with intent to sell. The drug was cocaine base, commonly known as “rock” cocaine. The total amount came to less than 1 gram. In addition, Jackson was charged with having two loaded handguns in his possession.
A multi-agency drug enforcement team had set up an undercover buy-bust operation last July in a high-crime area along Marconi Avenue in Sacramento’s north area. We heard testimony from an undercover sheriff’s deputy who made a $20 buy, several other deputies, police officers from Citrus Heights, Elk Grove and Sacramento, and a crime-lab criminalist. We listened to the cross-examination of these witnesses and saw the prosecutor’s evidentiary exhibits.
Deputy District Attorney Catrina Skor seemed to have a strong case when court recessed that Wednesday afternoon. I wondered how the defense would try to knock holes in it.
After the bailiff’s surprise call, I started nosing around on the Superior Court case-access website. I was amazed to see notices of motions to dismiss charges against the two defendants. How had that come about? I wondered.
I called the two defense attorneys. I emailed prosecutor Skor for an explanation. I attended a dismissal hearing. I heard a lot about the long-established Brady Rule, which requires prosecutors to give the defense any material information that might be favorable to the accused or could be used to impeach a witness, and to do so in a timely manner.
Deputy DA Dawn Bladet, who handled the motion to dismiss charges against defendant Jackson on March 13, gave a vague explanation. In an email, she said:
“The prosecution became aware, in the middle of the trial, of information regarding a material witness that affected our continuing to go forward with the proceedings. Because of the timing of this information, unfortunately there was not a sufficient opportunity to delay the trial.”
Skor, in her response, said charges were dismissed “due to a potential issue with a witness on that case. The issue was such that it warranted a dismissal in order to protect the integrity of the case. The case was not dismissed because of evidentiary issues or for a lack of evidence. It was a separate matter.”
The defense attorneys said they didn’t know specific details regarding the witness problem. Bladet and Skor declined to provide any names or the agency involved. Bladet did say the DA’s Office and the appropriate law-enforcement agency were investigating the issue.
When the official case file became available publicly, I checked that out. I found a couple of interesting things. First, defendant Jackson pleaded no-contest to a felony gun-possession charge on March 5. The next day, the judge, Bladet and Amanda Benson, a supervising assistant public defender, met to discuss dismissal of all charges. The DA’s Office didn’t provide details on the witness problem, Benson said, but had no obligation to do so. Jackson was later allowed to withdraw his plea.
All of this leaves me wondering what the witness problem was and how serious it might prove to be. Could more cases be compromised? What was the cost of this screw-up?
Some questions should be asked about all the tax money, resources and court and law-enforcement time that go into hundreds of minor drug cases each year. Is this really an effective way to combat the drug problem in our community?
Paul Clegg is a retired Sacramento Bee copy editor. He writes the blog Gameto100.com.