Murder trial moved to former bankruptcy court in Modesto

07/26/2014 6:43 PM

07/26/2014 11:13 PM

Stanislaus Superior Court, for the first time, is moving a murder trial because its courtrooms are not big enough to handle the number of defendants and attorneys involved.

The trial, which is scheduled to start next month and estimated to last at least three months, will be held about four blocks away at the former U.S. Bankruptcy Court on 12th and L streets in downtown Modesto.

The former federal courtroom provides more space for the seven defendants and their attorneys. More important, it reduces the security risks that result from clogging up a courtroom with defendants, attorneys and court staff.

Known to court staffers as the “well,” the space between the judge’s bench and the courtroom audience is where defendants sit next to their attorneys, the prosecutor sits next to a lead investigator and the court reporter and court clerk do their work throughout a trial.

“The more defendants you get, the quicker the well fills up,” said Brandi Christensen, the court’s facilities support services manager.

There are a handful of pending cases with multiple defendants. These cases typically involve defendants accused of committing a violent crime for the benefit of a street gang. The case that’s being moved to the former bankruptcy court is no different.

Erick Gomez, 20, was killed Feb. 14, 2013, on Vera Cruz Drive, near Coffee Road and Floyd Avenue in north Modesto. Court documents indicate that the killing was motivated by ongoing violence between Sureño and Norteño street gangs.

A criminal grand jury indicted Nancy Rodriguez, Jeanette Robles, Elida Carranza Fernandez, Jenna Cheyenne Sebourn, Dalia Mendoza, Lisandro Mendoza, Jesse James Sebourn, Michael Terrill Sebourn and Giovani Barocio.

Dalia Mendoza is being prosecuted separately and is scheduled to return to court Sept. 29. Barocio, the suspected gunman, remains a fugitive. The other defendants will stand trial accused of murder in Gomez’s death.

Their trial is scheduled to start Aug. 4 in the former federal courtroom, which has remained dormant since August 2008 when the bankruptcy court moved to a six-story building at 12th and I streets.

Some permanent fixtures remained in the former federal courtroom: the judge’s bench, the witness stand, working stations for the clerk and court reporter, seats for the audience and the jury box. It provided a template for court staff to work with.

“There was nothing else in here except for a couple of books,” said Christensen, who coordinated the effort to ready the bankruptcy courtroom for a murder trial.

A long table and chairs were added for the seven defense attorneys. Behind the attorneys, there will be chairs for their clients. To the right of them is a table for the prosecutor and a lead investigator.

A 100-inch screen for the digital projector will be added, along with microphones and speakers, WiFi and additional chairs for potential jurors during the jury selection process. The furniture, technology and equipment cost the court $80,000.

It took a few months of planning and installation to get the courtroom ready for trial. “All this stuff, we can’t just buy at Walmart,” Christensen said.

A one-year lease for the courtroom, adjacent office space and a jury deliberation room cost the court about $130,000. It’s money well-spent, court officials say, because they needed a more spacious courtroom.

“It’s way larger than what we have down the street,” Christensen said.

Court staff tried to find a home for this murder trial in all its courtrooms, including traffic court, but none provided the appropriate space, said Court Executive Officer Rebecca Fleming.

“It’s much safer than if we would’ve tried to do something here,” said Rebecca Fleming, court executive officer, referring to the county courthouse.

The court has moved trials to other counties because of publicity. But this is the first trial moved because the number of defendants created security risks.

The decision to move the murder trial came after a four-month murder trial that ended in February 2013. The case involved four defendants accused of participating in a fatal Modesto home-invasion robbery. The robbery was carried out by a street gang regiment looking for cash and drugs.

The trial was held in the basement floor of the courthouse because the inmate elevator broke down and remained that way for months. The defendants, attorneys, court staff and bailiffs that were needed to monitor the trial created a cramped atmosphere, which could have proved dangerous had a defendant gotten out of hand.

“It really was our first multiple-defendant trial where we ran out of room in the well,” Fleming said.

Deputy District Attorney Tom Brennan was the prosecutor in that trial, and he’s handling the upcoming seven-defendant trial as well. He’s never been in the former bankruptcy courtroom but welcomes the extra space.

“These courtrooms aren’t designed for seven defendants,” Brennan said about the county courthouse.

The prosecutor remembers the cramped conditions in last year’s trial, and said relocating the upcoming trial is a good move for everyone involved.

“It makes perfect sense,” Brennan said. “I don’t know of anybody who opposes this move.”

Once the trial ends, the former bankruptcy courtroom will be available for other multiple-defendant cases until the lease ends in March. The court would like to renew the lease, but it has to determine whether there will be enough money in its budget.

The county is set to get a new courthouse in downtown Modesto, but the start of construction is years away. State court officials plan to build a $277 million, 26-courtroom complex that’s expected to be finished by mid-2019.

“We’re hoping the new courthouse has a couple of courtrooms to handle these types of cases, at least seven defendants,” Christensen said. “So we’ll be talking about that in the design phase with the architect.”

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