A 13-year-old legal opinion from the United States Eastern District of California – and the timing of its release – may impact Tuesday’s primary election campaign between incumbent San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar and her challenger, Assistant District Attorney Ron Freitas.
In August 2009, John F. Moulds, federal magistrate for the Eastern District of California, found that there was sufficient evidence to conclude that in 2000 Freitas improperly excluded a Black man from serving on a jury based on his race. Freitas was accused of bias for dismissing other jurors, but the magistrate found no bias in those dismissals. The criminal trial at the heart of the dispute involved two young black men accused of shooting a gun at an occupied motor vehicle among other charges. The magistrate recommended to the judge assigned to the case that the convictions be vacated.
“The district court found that nine years afterward I could not sufficiently explain why I excused those jurors,” Freitas tells Stocktonia News Service this week. “That was after four other courts had all previously found that I acted properly.”
Freitas excluded three potential African-American jurors of the case, who are identified in the court document as Mr. Trimble, Mr. Green, and Mr. Jones. They were the only black men interviewed during the jury selection phase of the trial. Freitas excused each man during his peremptory challenges for various reasons, and the public defender argued that Freitas engaged in “a case of invidious group bias” against the men because they were the same race as the two defendants. The trial court rejected the public defender’s assertion.
In the challenges of Trimble and Green, Magistrate Moulds, who retired in 2013 and died in 2020 at the age of 82, disagreed with the public defender and agreed with all previous court rulings, including that of the California State Supreme Court. One of the men in question had educational limitations and a son with several prior drug-related convictions. Another admitted to previous arrests for driving under the influence, domestic assault, and criminal assault.
Excusing those men from serving as jurors was not race-based, according to Magistrate Moulds.
But Jones’ answers to written and oral questions were, in Moulds’ opinion, in line with other seated jurors. Moulds rejected Freitas’ assertion that Jones’ collection of responses justified excusing him. Because other jurors’ responses on at least some questions were similar to Jones’answers, the magistrate found that Freitas’ stated reasons to excuse Jones raised “an inference of discriminatory purpose.”
“I strongly disagree with the court’s ruling on this,” Freitas says.
Local organization releases document
The Stockton chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) released the court document on its website on May 28, 10 days before the June 7 primary election.
“The fact is we’re concerned that this practice will continue and escalate. I can’t say what he will do in the future. But this is deeply concerning, and it’s important because he’ll be sitting in the (D.A.) seat and prosecuting people,” says Bobby Bivens, president of the Stockton NAACP chapter.
Freitas says he believes the timing of the document release was a late attempt to sway voters. He likened it to an 11th-hour Hail Mary pass.
“I’d invite Mr. Bivens to come up to Lodi and see what we’re doing on the Lodi Unified School District Board in terms of equity and inclusion if he really wants to know what I feel about race,” says Freitas, Lodi Unified’s board president.
District Attorney Salazar says she learned of the document only one day before the NAACP published it.
“I absolutely did not know about this, Salazar says. “It was hidden.”
The ruling in question occurred when Jim Willett served as district attorney. Stocktonia News Service unsuccessfully attempted to reach Willett at his law offices in Beverly Hills. Willett has publicly endorsed Freitas.
Hotly contested race
This latest revelation continues what has become the most contentious local race on Tuesday’s ballot.
Salazar seeks her third term as district attorney. She was first elected in 2014 and ran unopposed in 2018. She states the hallmarks of her administration include significant victories in terms of victim assistance, data collection, and family justice. During her tenure the county has instituted a Family Justice Center, which has serviced approximately 20,000 residents. The office has also tripled the staff of its victim-witness program, and now publishes a yearly data report of case statistics.
Salazar also touts a program titled Project Navigate Constructive Change (PNCC), which attempts to redirect juvenile and first-time offenders away from prosecution in all but the most serious crimes. According to a July 2021 agency report, less than half of arrested or cited youth have their cases filed for prosecution.
Instead, they may be placed on informal probation or referred for community mentoring.
“We wanted to see if we could intercede and pivot the large recidivism rate,” she says. “We didn’t want the repeat business.”
Until the court document surfaced last weekend, the biggest issue, Freitas says, was Salazar’s decision since 2018 to stop prosecuting certain misdemeanors and felonies. He calls it “San Francisco justice” because it mirrors the progressive prosecutorial approach of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who faces a recall attempt Tuesday in San Francisco because, opponents say, he is soft on crime.
Local law enforcement says Salazar has done the same things in San Joaquin County. That’s why all law enforcement groups throughout the county endorsed Freitas.
“We don’t trust her to have the community’s best interest at heart in the courtroom or what she directs her staff to do,” says Ruben Rodriguez, president of the San Joaquin County Correctional Officers Association.
Salazar maintains she has a hands-off policy with the lawyers in her office. She says she has never told a deputy, assistant, or staff lawyer under her command to drop a charge or forgo gun or gang enhancements that keep offenders in prison for longer sentences. Nor has she made any policy against prosecuting some crimes, she says. [MOU3]
Rick Brewer is president of the SNS Board of Trustees.
Additional reporting by Scott Linesburgh.
This story is ongoing. Please check back for updates