Accused cop killer Luis Bracamontes has only been on trial for four days, but already he has threatened to kill more officers, hurled the “N-word” at a witness, jurors and victims’ families, and repeatedly been escorted from the courtroom in chains.
His antics were so outrageous that this week they become fodder for a new ad for Donald Trump over the weekend labeling Bracamontes an “illegal immigrant” who is “pure evil.”
On Monday, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Steve White made it plain: He has had enough.
“If you disrupt these proceedings one more time you will be removed,” White told Bracamontes at the start of trial before allowing the two juries in the case inside the courtroom.
White added that if Bracamontes is removed he will not be allowed back and instead will be watching the trial on video from a separate holding area.
The defendant remained quiet for the rest of the day Monday, the first time he has done so since trial began last Tuesday, but how long he will restrain himself is unknown.
His previous outbursts – which date back to February 2015, when he announced in a court hearing that “I killed them cops” – have made it difficult for White as he tries to ensure a fair trial for the defendant in a case that will likely be the subject of numerous appeals.
The judge has had to contend with numerous requests from the defense that their client be found mentally incompetent to stand trial, a request they made again Monday as they claimed four doctors have found Bracamontes to be mentally ill.
That mental illness claim was the subject of previous hearings after which White found Bracamontes understands the nature of the proceedings and can assist his lawyers if he chooses to.
Public defenders Norm Dawson and Jeffrey Barbour also have argued that they should be allowed to enter a not guilty by reason of insanity plea, which the judge has rejected.
Bracamontes also has asked in the past to fire his lawyers so he can plead guilty, but White refused to allow that and the defense attorneys have said they cannot ethically agree to a plea that will lead to him being sentenced to death.
Instead, the defense lawyers asked White on Monday to enter a guilty plea on Bracamontes’ behalf, something the judge refused to do because, he said, it would be “contrary to law.”
One legal observer who has been following the case said White’s continued efforts to let Bracamontes be present for trial are part of an overall strategy of limiting grounds for appeal.
“I’m certain that the judge would like to just leave him in the other room so he can proceed with the trial in an orderly fashion,” said Sacramento defense attorney William Portanova, a former federal and county prosecutor. “But the trial judge will be the subject of reviews who will second guess every decision.
“In order to have a successful trial with a verdict that can withstand appellate scrutiny, judges at the trial level will put up with all kinds of nonsense to ensure that all appellate judges can see that a person’s constitutional rights to a fair trial have been protected.”
Different judges have different approaches. Portanova recalled the 1969 trial in Chicago of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, during which a judge ordered Seale chained and gagged in front of the jury because of repeated outbursts by the defendant.
A similar case unfolded in Sacramento following the 1975 attempted assassination of President Gerald R. Ford in Capitol Park.
Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme was convicted in the case after a trial during which she disrupted proceedings – including throwing an apple toward the judge that instead struck the prosecutor. She ended up being removed from the courtroom and had to listen to court proceedings from another room.
Until Monday, White had indicated he would have deputies ask Bracamontes in the morning and after lunch each day if he planned to behave, and had allowed him back into court after receiving such assurances.
But Thursday’s outbursts – which included Bracamontes shouting racial slurs toward a witness who turned and shouted “F--- you” back at him as he left the courtroom – apparently were too much.
White made clear Monday that Bracamontes’ next outburst will get him removed from the courtroom for good.
Bracamontes has been taunting courtroom observers in hearings for two years, but his outbursts since then have reached new levels, including his use of the “N-word” toward Anthony Holmes, a man who says Bracamontes shot him five times during his October 2014 rampage.
Bracamontes also appeared to direct that slur and others at African American jurors, forcing White to address the matter with one juror who was seen outside the courtroom appearing to be upset, lawyers said. The judge brought that man in for questioning Monday morning out of the presence of the other jurors.
The juror assured White he could decide the case solely on the basis of evidence presented, and the judge then brought in the members of the two juries hearing the case.
Defense attorneys had argued that all jurors may have seen a campaign ad issued by President Trump’s campaign over the weekend that said Democrats would be “complicit” in any murders committed by illegal immigrants. That ad for Trump’s border wall included footage of Bracamontes smiling and vowing to kill more officers.
Two jurors told White that they had seen the ad but assured him it would not affect them.
Bracamontes, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, faces the death penalty if convicted in the October 2014 slayings of Sacramento sheriff’s Deputy Danny Oliver and Placer sheriff’s Deputy Michael Davis Jr. His wife, Janelle Monroy, faces up to life in prison if convicted in the murder of Davis.
Monroy has sat quietly since the trial began last Tuesday, but Bracamontes has disrupted proceedings each day with a slew of profanities, racist slurs and promises to kill more deputies.
White has ordered the defendant removed from court repeatedly, and allowed him back in after Bracamontes has agreed to behave. The judge has noted that Bracamontes has the right to be present, but made it clear Monday that he believes Bracamontes is acting out intentionally.
“Your conduct is entirely volitional, it is timed and targeted primarily at witnesses but also jurors,” the judge said.
Prosecutor Rod Norgaard said he has watched Bracamontes make faces or hard stares at the jurors and that he should not be allowed to benefit from his own misconduct by winning a mistrial.