Wednesday, December 27, 2006

People v. Zachery (Cal. Ct. App. - Dec. 27, 2006)

You've got to read this one. To encourage you to do so, I'll not only note that it's less than 20 double-spaced pages, but also entice you with the contents of its first paragraph:

"In this case, we discuss the obligation of a trial court clerk to accurately record the sentence pronounced by the judge in a criminal proceeding. Here, the court clerk included in the minutes and the abstract of judgment some provisions that were not in the judge’s pronouncement of sentence. This was error, which was compounded by the fact the judge erroneously sentenced defendant on a count for which he was not convicted. We also shall address the judge’s remark, on the record and in open court, that this court is a 'kangaroo court.'"

Let's just say that Justice Sims is not too fond of what went on below. At all. Both substantively and as a matter of tone. Indeed, Justice Sims slams the trial judge -- Judge K. Peter Saiers of the San Joaquin Superior Court -- so hard, including a sentence that appears almost purposefully amenable for use by a challenger the next time Judge Saiers has to run for reelection ("The truth of the matter is that Judge K. Peter Saiers has wasted taxpayers’ dollars."), that Justice Hull concurs separately to say that while he agrees that Judge Saiers violated the California Code of Judicial Ethics, he can't sign onto the rest of the discussion.

Regardless, this is not a huge Christmas present for Judge Saiers. And demonstrates no love lost between the Third District and Judge Saiers. Either way.

There are some other really interesting things about the opinion as well that Justice Sims doesn't directly mention, including but by no means limited to the apparent frequency of (impermissible) post-sentence "additions" by the Clerk.

But the only additional issue that I wanted to mention at any length is the procedural history of the case and what it might say about the nature of criminal appeals as well as the quality of appointed criminal appellate counsel.

In the end, the Court of Appeal holds that there were numerous (indeed, egregious) errors below. But notice what has to transpire before we get there. Notwithstanding these plethora of errors, the counsel appointed to represent defendant on appeal -- William Davies -- filed a Wende brief, stating that he had reviewed the record and found no even arguable issues in favor of defendant on appeal. It was only the Court of Appeal who found these issues, and after receiving the Wende brief filed by Davies, asked him to file a supplemental brief on no less than eight separate issues; in essence, to do the job he'd be appointed (and paid) to do to begin with. And which, in the end, did indeed result in a substantial amount of relief for the defendant.

The upshot of this process depends upon whether you view the glass as half empty or half full. One way to view it is to say that this proves that the Court of Appeal takes its obligations seriously upon receipt of Wende brief s-- which they get all the time -- and often identifies issues that counsel has overlooked. But the other way to interpret what transpired here is to say that the Court of Appeal's particular interest in this case was probably purely derivative of the trial court's comment that the Court of Appeal was a "kangeroo court" and that the lesson to be learned is less that the Court of Appeal is incredibly diligent than that appointed criminal appellate lawyers often are not.

I could talk more about this case, but I've said more than enough at this point. Plus, I have to pick up my brother Chris from the airport in 15 minutes. Let me just close by quoting the transcript below in which the trial judge -- again, Judge Saiers -- talks to the defendant about whether to take the plea deal. The Court of Appeal doesn't reach the issue because it requires a habeas brief (since there was no certificate of probable cause granted by the trial court), but read what follows and decide whether you think that Judge Saiers was impermissibly coercive in convincing the defendant to take the plea. And whether comments like this by the trial (e.g., sentencing) judge prior to trial are a good thing:

"THE COURT: How are you doing today, Don?
THE DEFENDANT: Alive. Trying to do all right.
THE COURT: Don, you know what I’ve offered you in this case, don’t you? Low-term double, strike one strike. You’re facing 25 to life. The 245(C) isn’t that strong a count, but the 2800.2 is open and shut. You were going through red lights and stop signs, 50 miles an hour. I mean, there’s not a jury anywhere that’s not going to convict you.
Do you want to spend the rest of your life in prison?
THE DEFENDANT: No, not really, I mean --
THE COURT: Well, then, you should take the four year offer.
[Prosecutor]: Four, I thought it was six years.
THE COURT: It’s low-term, doubled. What’s low-term?
[Defense Counsel]: Well, low-term is three.
THE COURT: Then it is six years.
Six is still better than life. I mean, I think it’s a no[-]brainer.
[Discussion of work credits]
THE COURT: So, you’d have to do four years, eight months on a six-year sentence, Don. And you already have one and a half years in. You have a year of actual credit, half a year of good time credit.
So, what do you want to do, get out when you’re close to 70, or get out when you’re 51? That’s your choice. And on the 2800.2, you don’t have a defense, Don."

In the end, I'm happy to see what eventually transpired in the Court of Appeal. But am very displeased both by what transpired below as well as by what was necessary before justice prevailed above.