Witness stunned by sudden outbreak of violence at state Capitol
The state’s massive investigation into last June’s clash at the state Capitol between neo-Nazi skinheads and anti-fascist counter-demonstrators has officials at the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office sifting through piles of evidence to decide what charges may be filed.
On Wednesday, the California Highway Patrol said it had sent over to the District Attorney’s Office a 2,000-page investigative report recommending charges against more than 100 people. But the passage of time may be a problem for officials seeking to prosecute some of the cases, especially in the case of the 514 recommended misdemeanor charges.
Nearly nine months have elapsed since the June 26 melee, and the statute of limitations for misdemeanors such as unlawful assembly is one year from the date of the incident, meaning prosecutors will have to work quickly to file charges if they determine they are warranted.
“This is somewhat unique, to have this many cases presented at one time,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Grippi said Thursday, one day after CHP officials announced their probe was complete. “So, we’re going to have to go through it methodically and determine which cases are sufficient for prosecution and which should be prosecuted in the interests of justice.
“We’re working on it immediately.”
Grippi said he and veteran prosecutor Robin Shakely, an assistant chief deputy, are reviewing the files along with two other deputies.
“We are going to be reviewing every one of them,” Grippi said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to charge every one of them.”
The CHP report, which includes hours of video, recommends 514 misdemeanor and 68 felony charges against 106 individuals ranging from unlawful assembly to conspiracy to assault with a deadly weapon stemming from the bloody clash last summer.
“We’re confident we’ve identified all the participants who could be charged,” CHP spokeswoman Fran Clader said Thursday. “We’ve looked at video from witnesses, surveillance video, everything available from news media and social media video in the public domain ...
“Obviously, this was an exhaustive effort by our investigators, and among some of the challenges they faced was that a lot of the people were disguised, they were difficult to locate and once they were located they were not cooperative. Our investigators used every avenue to make sure they were identified.”
Officials said they would not release the report publicly, citing the ongoing investigation.
The incident began during a planned march by the Traditionalist Workers Party, a far-right nationalist group that had a permit for the march and whose members were accompanied by Golden State Skinheads members.
That group was composed of about 30 marchers who carried flags and protest signs. They were confronted by a much larger group of more than 300 people who call themselves anti-fascists.
Both sides had been warning in internet posts for months about the potential for violence. The day of the event, about 100 Sacramento police officers ringed the sidewalks on the west side of the Capitol with dozens of CHP officers (the agency won’t say exactly how many were there) posted on the grounds to keep peace and protect the building.
Even before the march began, skirmishes broke out between the two sides and quickly erupted into shoving, beatings and stabbings. The CHP says 14 people were injured (news reports at the time said five people were stabbed) and the entire melee was recorded by numerous media crews and streamed live over the internet.
Despite the violence, no arrests were made that day. The CHP was criticized for the fact that officers on horseback and in riot gear largely held back while the two sides battled on the Capitol grounds and paramedics waded into the scene to provide medical care.
Sacramento police later said officers remained on the sidewalks to ensure the safety of tourists who were wandering the city streets that Sunday and to protect private businesses and offices. The Capitol grounds are under the jurisdiction of the CHP, and authorities said thousands of dollars in damage to the Capitol was reported.
The incident, the largest and most violent clash at the Capitol in years, prompted discussion between the city and the CHP over how to handle future protests and raised questions about whether law enforcement should have been more aggressive at the time.
One expert on hate groups said the completion of the report and forwarding of it to prosecutors “is a positive development” and that a more forceful response at the time could have made the violence much worse.
“If the police had gone in and made arrests at that time, it could have gotten even more out of control,” said Brian Levin, a former New York Police Department officer and now director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “If police went in to extract one felon or misdemeanant it could have put at risk other protesters or counterprotesters or law enforcement.”
Legal experts said the passage of time from the incident to when the CHP completed its investigation makes prosecution more difficult, but added that is not insurmountable.
Prosecuting some of the misdemeanor cases can prove problematic, said Sacramento defense attorney Don Heller, a former federal prosecutor.
“Assault with a deadly weapon is a serious felony,” Heller said. “Those kinds of things need to be prosecuted when you can prove a serious felony.
“Unlawful assembly? Those cases are always met with First Amendment objections.”
Heller also said he was confident the Sacramento County DA’s Office can handle the sudden influx of potential new cases.
“If you realize what the Sac County DA’s office handles every single day with their intake department, it’s going to be somewhat of a logistical problem, but they’ll get it done,” he said. “Not every crime gets prosecuted, because if they prosecuted everything we wouldn’t have enough space and judges and court-appointed lawyers to handle those cases.”
Another former prosecutor, defense attorney William Portanova, said the existence of video will be crucial to many of the cases.
“There are so many moving pieces going in so many different directions simultaneously that its almost impossible to sort it out,” Portanova said. “In most assault cases, the only available defense is self-defense, and that’s based on an individual’s credibility and corroboration by other evidence.
“So, clearly videotape evidence will probably decide everything.”
Prosecuting the stabbing cases will be the most important part of the probe, he added.
“A stabbing is as close to a murder as you can get,” Portanova said. “For the sake of an inch or two, any stabbing puts somebody within an inch or two of bleeding to death, assuming an artery is either hit or not hit. There’s a huge difference between a stabbing and simple misdemeanor assault, and you can be sure a prosecutor will address all the felonies first.”