Comments made by Lassen County District Attorney Stacey Montgomery captured on video during a December 2017 candlelight vigil in Uptown Susanville and posted on her own website and others earlier this month by her husband, campaign manager and local radio personality Chris Montgomery, have disrupted the prosecution of Juan Ruiz Esqueda — charged in connection with an Oct. 11, 2016 hit and run accident that claimed the life of Janesville teen Kolby Trumbull.
Montgomery told the court she did not authorize or consent to the release of the video, and she has asked her husband to take it down.
Autumn Paine, a Lassen County deputy public defender, recently filed motions seeking a protective order, the recusal of the Lassen County District Attorney’s Office and a change of venue in the case. Paine even alleges Montgomery revealed confidential, law enforcement information from Esqueda’s RAP sheet during her comments.
At a preliminary hearing last year, visiting judge Jerry Johnson dismissed a vehicular manslaughter charge against Esqueda because the district attorney’s office did not present enough evidence to support the charge.
At that hearing Johnson said, “I can’t connect it (the vehicular manslaughter charge) to the crime.”
According to a court filing by deputy district attorney Stephanie Skeen, after the preliminary hearing, Esqueda was “held to answer on one count of felony failure to perform a duty (hit and run with permanent injury), vehicle code section 20001, and one count of misdemeanor driving while privilege suspended, vehicle code section 14601.2.” The district attorney’s office did not refile the vehicular manslaughter charge.
Rulings by a visiting judge on Tuesday, March 13 could determine who will prosecute the case and where the trial will be held.
Video sparks issues
The video of Lassen County District Attorney Stacey Montgomery expressing her belief in the unjust nature of California’s sanctuary city laws in the aftermath of the jury verdict that acquitted murder and manslaughter charges against Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, an illegal alien who had been deported five times, as well as coverage by the Lassen County Times and social media sites are at the heart of the public defender’s efforts to recuse the district attorney’s office and force a change of venue in the case.
Paine alleges Montgomery’s comments in the “highly inflammatory video” are part of “an escalating use of the media by District Attorney Stacey Montgomery,” that violates defendant Juan Ruiz Esqueda’s Fifth, Sixth, Eighth and 14th Amendment rights, and that the district attorney “appears to have acted illegally herself” in allegedly disseminating confidential information from the defendant’s RAP sheet “for a completely illegitimate purpose which is in contravention of the law.”
The deputy public defender alleges Montgomery used social media “in an attempt to engender sympathy for the victim and to inflame and unduly prejudice the jury pool in Lassen County against the defendant by informing the pool of information from the defendant’s RAP sheet, (and) providing the pool with incorrect and inflammatory allegations … ”
In a declaration filed with the court Feb. 13 by Montgomery, the district attorney acknowledges she attended a Dec. 13, 2017 vigil for Steinle, “the young lady who was shot and killed by an illegal immigrant who was granted sanctuary in San Francisco, California.”
Montgomery said her husband filmed her comments and posted them on her Lassen County District Attorney web page and others without her knowledge or consent.
“At the end of the vigil, I made statements regarding my personal opinion as to the injustice of the outcome of the verdict in the Kate Steinle case as well as the statements at issue. At no point after those comments were made did I authorize or consent to release any portion of that footage … I had not reviewed the video for form or content prior to the posting, and I did not authorize its release.”
Montgomery said her husband prepared the video at his office, and “as soon as I was made aware of the problem, I instructed Christopher Montgomery to immediately remove the video from my site and any others that he may have posted the video.”
Within minutes, she said the video had been taken down, “and to the best of my knowledge, the video is no longer accessible on Facebook or any other site.”
Paine alleges in the video Montgomery was “publicly accusing the defendant of being an illegal immigrant who caused the victim’s death due to the sanctuary state law and the state’s refusal to cooperate with ICE and accusing the defendant of having a violent criminal history.
“Whether DA Montgomery’s comments were designed to engender support for opposition to the sanctuary state law by using Kathryn Steinle’s and Kolby Trumbull’s death(s), or to use the sanctuary state law and Kathryn Steinle’s death to prejudice the jury against Mr. Ruiz Esqueda, or whether it was all to garner support for her own job is immaterial … The effect to Mr. Ruiz Esqueda’s case is that the jury pool has been irreparably tainted.”
According to a court filing from the public defender’s office, Montgomery said on the video, “My heart goes out to these people who are here tonight to honor Kate and to honor Kolby because their deaths were senseless and could have been prevented … by the simple honoring of an ICE detainer … When somebody has a criminal history they should not be returned to this country and both Kolby and Kate were victims of people who had … returned to this country on numerous occasions and been deported on numerous occasions and had multiple violent crimes that they had been convicted of.”
Paine alleges the video received more than 7,000 views on Facebook and was also posted on Chris Montgomery’s personal Facebook page and was shared on the KSUE JDX radio station page.
Paine argues Montgomery’s allegations, “even if true, would never be allowed into evidence and presented to a jury and come from information in the defendant’s RAP sheet, which, according to the office of the attorney general, that information is ‘restricted by law to legitimate law enforcement purposes and authorized applicant agencies.’ Thus, DA Montgomery, in disseminating information from the defendant’s RAP sheet for a completely illegitimate purpose which is in contravention of the law, appears to have acted illegally herself.”
Paine asked the court to “order the parties not discuss the case with the media or otherwise disseminate information to the public … and order DA Montgomery to remove all copies of the video from Facebook and any other social media sites.”
Change of venue?
On Feb. 7 Paine filed a motion seeking a change of venue “on the grounds that there is a reasonable likelihood that a fair and impartial trial cannot be held in Lassen County,” and that Esqueda’s “constitutional rights to due process, a fair trial, reliable sentencing hearing and non-arbitrary fact-finding procedures guaranteed by the Fifth, Sixth, Eighth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and Article 1 section 1, 7, 15,16 and 17 of the California Constitution” were in jeopardy.
“Because of the nature of the charges and that a young man died, this case has engendered much interest in the community … ” Paine wrote.
Paine said the case attracted much attention in the local media, including the Lassen County Times, and “the accounts published by local media have expressed Mr. Ruiz Esqueda’s guilt as a matter of fact. After the preliminary hearing on the matter, there was much interest expressed in the form of letters to the editor about the dismissal of the vehicle manslaughter charge and the lack of a holding order on that charge.”
In addition, Paine wrote, “The district attorney’s husband, Chris Montgomery, a local radio commentator, has taken an interest in the case and publicly commented and posted about the case in a public forum.”
The public defender also issued a subpoena for the Lassen County Times to provide copies of its coverage.
Paine urged the court to grant a change of venue due to a “five-part test and consideration of special factors” — including the nature and gravity of the offense, the size of the community, the status of the victim and the accused, the media (and social media) coverage associated with the case has been extensive and inflammatory and the presence of political overtones.
The district attorney’s office opposes the change of venue. Responding to the gravity of the offense, Skeen wrote, “The case before this court is far from those in which change of venue is normally granted with gravity of offense as a factor. This case is a failure to perform (a) duty, or ‘hit and run’ causing death. This is not a murder case.”
The deputy district attorney noted the maximum sentence Esqueda faces is 48 months and the minimum sentence is 24 months.
Skeen wrote, “The media coverage in the instant case has been largely factual. The media coverage has been factually reported by law enforcement, the Lassen County District Attorney’s Office, Lassen County Superior Court and what could be heard by any member of the public while attending public court appearances,” and “Media coverage is not biased or inflammatory simply because it recounts the inherently disturbing circumstances of the case … The defense would like the court to believe that because there are a small number of citizens who have expressed anger about the case or opinions regarding punishment through letters to the editor or on social media that the entire potential jury venire from Lassen County is polluted. This is not accurate when taken in context of the entirety of the coverage, which has been mostly factual in nature.”
Skeen also pointed out, “The media coverage in the instant case has decreased over time.”
Skeen acknowledged Lassen County is a small county, but “By this standard, any case that received news coverage and/or social media comments would warrant a change of venue … ”
She also noted Esqueda is not a stranger to the community.
Regarding the prominence of the victim, Skeen wrote, “However, the fact that a victim, previously unknown to the majority of the community, becomes prominent because of publicity surrounding his or her death, however, does not weigh in favor of a change of venue.”
“The people oppose any suggestion of political overtones being present in the instant case,” Skeen wrote. “Defense counsel indicates that because the video addressed above was posted to District Attorney Montgomery’s page, political overtones are present. The defense also considers the video to be media coverage as part of their argument. This appears to be an attempt to use the video in every way possible to obtain a change of venue. The allegations are baseless … ”