Justice Delayed: Murder cases still piling up in Stanislaus courts

Judges, attorneys and Stanislaus court administrators have not removed a glut of local murder cases, two years after The Modesto Bee highlighted the troubling backlog with its high costs, financial and emotional.

Adjusted for population, murder cases here remain twice as high as the statewide average, according to data gathered from 50 of California’s 58 counties in a new Bee analysis. And old Stanislaus murder cases, defined as waiting five years or more for trial, continue stacking up at a rate triple the statewide average.

Players in the local system insist they’re working hard and making progress. Others are frustrated that more hasn’t been done to move the needle. Some families of murder victims are worried that witnesses’ memories will fade as files grow moldy.

“We’re all doing the best we can with what we have,” said Ricardo Córdova, Stanislaus presiding judge. “There is no easy answer to this situation.”

Meanwhile, taxpayers are forced to cough up $4.2 million a year to house, in local jails, the 112 murder defendants still waiting for trial. That’s about $102 a day for each, up from $99 two years ago.

It wasn’t always this way.

The startling rise in unresolved murder cases roughly coincides with two events: a 2005 change in how judges handle cases, and the 2006 election of District Attorney Birgit Fladager. She continues to blame the subsequent spike on the 2005 change, while some judges have suggested that Fladager’s must-win approach to justice is bogging down the system. It’s clear also that demands for continuances from defense teams, whose clients generally benefit from delays, have contributed to the logjam.

All agree that limited resources – a shortage of prosecutors, judges and courtrooms – is keeping them from clearing the pileup. In that respect, not much has changed in the past two years.

Evidence blunders cause delays

A new look at the problem turns up another potential factor which could become a campaign issue, as Fladager seeks a fourth term in elections next year. Her office’s problems with handling of evidence has marred some court proceedings, including delays in murder cases.

Challenger Patrick Kolasinski said, “It’s simple disorganization and mismanagement. It’s a matter of what are your priorities, what matters most to you.” He is a defense attorney, but doesn’t represent murder suspects.

Another challenger from within the District Attorney’s office, John Mayne, does prosecute murder cases and acknowledges problems caused by evidence mishandling, several documented in Bee reports. But he’s not convinced that’s a significant reason for the glut of 14 old murder cases; currently he’s not assigned to any of them.

Fladager and members of her technology team say they’re nearing a years-old goal of providing evidence to all attorneys digitally, erasing the need for paper changing hands, as well as chances for muffing it.

Fladager says her office has made significant progress since The Bee shined a light on the accumulation of murder cases two years ago. Her prosecutors since have resolved 64 murder cases, she said, with a total of 79 defendants; some cases have more than one defendant.

“A lot of good work has been done in the last two years to address the backlog,” she said.

The trend – finishing 64 murder cases in two years, while absorbing 45 more in that time – suggests gradual improvement.

Making progess

Others say they sense that things are going in the right direction.

“I’ve noticed in the last few months a concerted effort to try to resolve some of these homicides,” said Sonny Sandhu, Stanislaus County public defender (he is appointed, while Fladager is elected). “It’s led to convictions, and good results for defendants as well.”

For example, Andrew and Alicia Paffendorf in October were convicted in the death of their 16-month-old son after a wait of nearly nine years. Also in October, Andrew Briseno and Adolfo Leyva were sentenced for their roles in the murder of Erik Preciado, in a botched carjacking attempt, in 2007 (the shooter, Gary Spray, two years ago was sentenced to 30 years in prison).

“I’ve been waiting 10 and a half years for this day,” sobbed the victim’s mother, Julie Preciado, at the sentencing for Briseno and Leyva. In an emotion-packed proceeding, she forgave the men and hugged their mothers in the audience, and both men cried while apologizing to the victim’s family, including a now-teenage daughter who was 4 when her father was killed.

To take a possible death sentence off the table, Mark Mesiti in October admitted to sexually abusing and murdering his 14-year-old daughter, Alycia, 11 years ago, although he’s now trying to withdraw the plea.

And in August, two men were sentenced for punching and kicking to death David Cingcon Jr., in a parking lot near Sylvan and Oakdale roads more than nine years before.

Assistant Presiding Judge Dawna Reeves said recent resolutions give reason for hope.

“There is no blame to place. It is what it is,” Reeves said. “The perception that things are taking too long – there may not even be a problem. Maybe it’s just the way things have evolved.”

Multiyear delays, however, seem like forever when someone is seeking justice for a slain loved one.

“Five years later and I’m still waiting,” said Maisy Avila, whose 31-year-old son was murdered along with his fiancée and a teenage boy raised as Avila’s grandson, in an alleged gang hit on McClure Road in early 2012. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against three men, and life sentences for four others.

Lack of closure for victims’ loved ones

“I want justice to be served,” Avila continued. “But the system is not for those of us who are left behind. It’s for those who stand behind the bars and try to fight their way out of something they know they did wrong and they’re trying to get off. It’s not right. We deserve our day in court too.”

Modesto Councilwoman Jenny Kenoyer said she attends church with a woman and her two children whose father has been in jail 10 years waiting for trial – longer than they were a family before his arrest.

“It just seems to me that something is really wrong with our judicial system if we can’t bring people to trial within a reasonable amount of time, and 10 years is not reasonable,” Kenoyer said.

Time standards, adopted for California courts in 1987 and amended in 2004, call for all felonies to resolve within one year. Is that realistic?

Some counties get close. For example, Stanislaus’ neighbor to the north, San Joaquin, closed out 98 percent of felonies in 2015, the latest period for which data are available; that’s tied for best in California, with Sacramento County, according to the California Judicial Council.

Stanislaus courts, by comparison, disposed of only 77 percent of felonies that year, putting us 15th from the bottom in the state. And Stanislaus’ achievement rate steadily slipped in each of the preceding few years, from a high of 87 percent in 2011.

Stanislaus courts have been confronted with fewer and fewer cases of all types over that same five-year span, from a high of 4,262 filings in 2011 down to 2,785 in 2015. With that trend, one might expect judges to catch up, but the opposite is true: dispositions also have steadily declined each year, from 4,085 per judge in 2011 to only 2,530 in 2015, according to the California Judicial Council.

The number of Stanislaus trials also sharply declined, from 118 in 2011 to only 68 in 2015.

“A high number of trials doesn’t equate to more efficient justice,” said Hugh Swift, executive officer of Stanislaus courts. All sides typically strive to resolve cases before trial; perhaps more end that way here because attorneys and judges are better at negotiating, said Córdova and Reeves.

And that could be thanks to the 2005 change in the way judges are assigned cases, they said. The switch from what was called master calendaring to direct calendaring resulted in judges keeping a given case from start to finish instead of different judges handling various segments as a case proceeds toward trial.

Fladager flatly blames the backlog on direct calendaring; when a trial finally begins, that judge’s remaining caseload stacks up instead of being sent to another judge, she says. But court administrators and some judges dispute that, including Reeves, who came up through the district attorney’s office.

Kolasinski says Stanislaus judges have become so accustomed to delay requests, often resulting from problems with evidence in the discovery process, that they routinely grant continuances without question. That rarely happens in neighboring counties, he said.

Unique culture of delay?

“I can get a continuance almost any time I want without batting an eye, because there is no pushback from the DA or from the judge,” Kolasinski said. “When I go to other (counties), it’s, `Oh, hell no.’ But here, I say I didn’t get discovery, or I say I think there’s more, and nobody questions it because the DA has no way of knowing what they already gave me. There is no centralized way of tracking this evidence.”

Judges only have so much power to move cases along, Córdova and Reeves said.

“We can force it to go to trial, but the chances of being reversed (on appeal) are much greater,” Córdova said. “It’s extremely frustrating to all of us.”

Reeves said, “Everyone is mindful of the age of these cases. You don’t want to be viewed as an inefficient judge. But you also have to be mindful of everyone’s rights.”

Budget documents for each of the past three years have mentioned Fladager’s plan for improvement through paperless reports. Her evidence handlers “are struggling to function effectively under such burdensome caseloads. Mistakes may happen and cause delays,” reads the latest narrative for the 2017-18 fiscal year.

For example, a preliminary hearing for murder defendant Frank Carson, who also is a prominent Modesto defense attorney, dragged on for 18 months partly because of evidence lapses by Fladager’s office, including failure to turn over polygraph results for more than two years. A year ago, the exasperated judge abruptly released Carson and two others charged with murder on their own recognizance upon learning about more evidence that had not been shared with defense teams.

A preliminary hearing for Martin Martinez, accused of killing his girlfriend, Amanda Crews, and four others, began in August but was postponed until January because prosecutors failed to provide a large amount of evidence to the defense team, including Sandhu.

In upcoming budget talks, Fladager will push county leaders to give her office more money for more prosecutors, she said. Her people cooperated with county executives on a recent study of caseloads in comparable counties (San Joaquin, Merced, Sacramento, Fresno, Kern, Tulare and Monterey), with intriguing results:

▪ Each Stanislaus prosecutor reviews far more new cases than the other counties, averaging 417 per year (Merced was second at 360, and the eight-county average was 305).

▪ We’re second in the number of murder cases per prosecutor (1.8), behind only Merced (2), while the average is 0.8.

A Bee analysis found an inverse correlation between caseload and trials per prosecutor; the more trials accomplished, the fewer murder cases a prosecutor has (the exception is Merced, where prosecutors have both a high caseload and go to trial more). Stanislaus prosecutors fared worst in this comparison, bringing the fewest number to trial (1.6 per deputy district attorney) while handling more murder cases than all others, except Merced.

Stanislaus County executives will agree with Fladager’s plan to pay for more prosecutors with money freed up from clerk positions, which won’t be needed as much as her office moves toward all-digital reports, she said.

Hemorrhaging prosecutors

Mayne said the office’s biggest problem is retaining prosecutors, too many of whom have left for greener pastures, or lighter caseloads with less pressure. The office was forced to replace 17 prosecutors in the past year, he said, among 47 total.

“The current DA wants to place all the blame for slow resolution of cases on the courts,” Mayne said. “I will look at what we can do better. If our people are not overwhelmed, we can avoid some of these delays.”

When the backlog became public two years ago, major players – courts administrators, judges, prosecutors, the public defender, county supervisors and the county executive office – vowed to work together to change the delay culture and break the murder case logjam. Fladager said she was dismayed when the effort was sidetracked in favor of a more pressing concern: courthouse security.

A change in funding has provoked an ongoing dispute between county and state leaders, all sides said. They soon will return to the murder case backlog, they said.

“I guess I’m a little frustrated,” said County Supervisor Terry Withrow, part of the county’s delegation. “This has been going on for two years and we have not made any progress at all. I think we can do multiple things at once.”

County Supervisor Vito Chiesa noted, “Other counties seem to have a method that works. We all need to try harder.”

Avila, and many others waiting years for justice, would appreciate that.

She misses the “silly dance” that her son, Edward Reinig, would do every holiday.

“He’s never coming home. He’s never dancing again. Every holiday is hard,” Avila said. “Yet we wait. We wait and we wait. I’m tired. Get your butts in gear and do your job, whomever it is. We deserve peace, too.”

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390