Citing vast media coverage of the October 2014 slayings of two Sacramento-area deputies and the nationwide debate over President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, lawyers for slaying suspect Luis Bracamontes say their client cannot get a fair trial and are asking a Sacramento Superior Court judge to move the case to another county.
“There have been at least 289 news articles written about this case,” Bracamontes’ public defenders, Norm Dawson and Jeffrey Barbour, wrote in their motion to have the trial moved. “There have been at least 476 television broadcasts.
“There have been over 1,500 internet hits and stories on this case. There have been political ads and political speeches featuring this case ... The extent of the coverage is comprehensive, all-encompassing and ongoing.”
Compounding the difficulty in getting Bracamontes a fair trial, the lawyers added, is the fact that he is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico and that immigration has become a major political issue with the new Trump administration.
“Mr. Bracamontes has been demonized in the local media,” they wrote. “He is portrayed as an outcast, not only from this community and also from this state but from this country.”
Bracamontes, a Mexican citizen who has a history of drug arrests and has been deported twice, is charged in connection with a daylong rampage Oct. 24, 2014, during which Sacramento County sheriff’s Deputy Danny Oliver and Placer County sheriff’s Deputy Michael Davis Jr. were killed, two other deputies were shot and a passer-by wounded. Bracamontes faces the death penalty if convicted. His wife, Janelle Monroy, who is accused of aiding him during the crime spree, faces life in prison.
The effort to move the case out of Sacramento has been expected since the early days of court proceedings, and Judge Steve White has scheduled a June 12 hearing on the issue.
Prosecutors have not yet filed a reply brief to the motion, but are expected to vigorously oppose moving the trial, which is scheduled to begin in October. Lawyers on both sides have declined to comment as the case proceeds.
The notoriety of the case includes the widow of one slain deputy attending a State of the Union address, Trump using the slayings as a campaign plank in his promise to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones airing a television commercial about the killings during his failed congressional campaign.
A telephone survey of Sacramento residents that was commissioned by Bracamontes’ lawyers found a vast number of citizens who could be called for jury duty have made up their minds about the case, according to the motion.
Already, 76 percent of Sacramento residents who are aware of the case and are eligible to sit on the jury “have prejudged Mr. Bracamontes as either definitely or probably guilty,” and 51 percent of those aware of the case believe he should be sentenced to death if found guilty, the motion states.
The survey of 400 residents was conducted in November and December by J.D. Franz Research, a Sacramento public opinion and marketing firm hired by the public defenders.
At first, residents asked to take part in the survey refused at a rate Franz Research viewed as “unnecessarily high,” according to the findings filed in court, so the survey introduction was shortened. Even then, however, the refusal rate on the first day of calling “was still higher than the research firm thought it should be.”
Because of that, “the introduction was reworded to present the survey as being sponsored by Sacramento County rather than as being conducted on behalf of a research firm,” and the survey proceeded.
Jennifer Franz, president of the research firm, declined to comment on the survey methods because the matter is still in court, and legal experts contacted by The Sacramento Bee differed over whether that change could be considered questionable.
“That’s awfully close to the line,” said McGeorge School of Law professor Michael Vitiello. “It makes me a little uncomfortable.”
John Cary Sims, another McGeorge law professor, also questioned the approach.
“If I were responsible for trying to have a survey conducted on my behalf as an attorney and I learned that my contractor intended to do this, I would think really hard about it,” Sims said. “The need to get accurate information is higher, because this is an important thing.
“It’s not like a survey on what kind of toothpaste people like.”
Former prosecutor and veteran defense attorney William Portanova said the survey method could be considered valid because the county is, in fact, paying for Bracamontes’ defense.
“The attorneys are hired by the county to represent the indigent criminal defendant,” Portanova said. “It’s creative, but what good is a lawyer who’s not creative?”
Bracamontes’ public defenders face more difficulty than the fact that the case has received widespread media attention. Their client has compounded the problem by declaring in court at least twice that he is guilty and wants to be executed, and has engaged in a series of bizarre outbursts that included his declaration in January that he wanted to kill one of his lawyers.
His public defenders have failed at previous efforts to close the court proceedings from the public and the press, and legal experts said this week they likely will fail in their effort to get the case moved out of Sacramento.
“You’re making every darn motion you can to make as many issues as possible reviewable on appeal,” said Vitiello, the McGeorge law professor. “They’ve got to try everything, but it’s not John Hinckley, it’s not even the Kings getting rid of DeMarcus Cousins.
“I think you’re going to be able to get enough people who’ll say, ‘I haven’t heard about the case.’ ”