Based on the comments we’ve received following our most recent coverage of the Juan Ruiz Esqueda case, the district attorney’s plea bargain really hit a nerve with some of our readers. Perhaps that’s not unusual. The Lassen County Times is the only media outlet in the county that’s covered this case from beginning to end, and in last week’s paper, on our website and on our Facebook page, we reported the deal offered by the Lassen County District Attorney’s Office and accepted by the defense.
On June 27, Esqueda pleaded guilty to driving without a license and no contest to a misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charge in the case involving the Oct. 11, 2016 death of 16-year-old Kolby Trumbull, of Janesville. According to the plea bargain Esqueda faces a maximum penalty of one year in jail.
Comments by Lassen County District Attorney Stacey Montgomery complicated the case. At a December 2017 candle vigil in Uptown Susanville, Montgomery alleged Esqueda is an illegal alien who has been convicted of multiple violent crimes and deported many times. As visiting judge Candace Beason noted, this information would never be revealed to a jury. It is not admissible in a court of law because Esqueda’s alleged immigration status and his criminal background are irrelevant when considering his guilt or innocence of the charges he faces, and Beason said every law school graduate should know those comments would not be admissible in court.
In February, Mark Nareau, a Lassen County Superior Court judge issued a protective order restricting extra-judicial comments by the parties to the case. Despite that protective order, Montgomery commented on the case again during a May 16 roundtable discussion at the White House.
Because of Montgomery’s comments, the defense sought a change of venue and the recusal of the district attorney’s office. Beason granted the change of venue motion, but denied the unusual recusal motion, instead ordering that someone other than Montgomery supervise Esqueda’s prosecution. Despite that order, Montgomery allegedly discussed a possible plea bargain with the prosecutor anyway.
So, the defense continues to press the issue of Montgomery’s comments, and Beason is reviewing a defense request for an order to show cause hearing for contempt of court.
Many in the community allege Esqueda was under the influence of alcohol when he allegedly struck Trumbull, but the court file contains no evidence of that. Esqueda was never charged with driving under the influence, and the court file does not include the results of a blood test or any mention that investigators administered such a test.
According to the court file, the district attorney’s office wanted to impeach Esqueda’s testimony with information regarding his criminal background if he took the stand in his own defense.
The court file also contains no information about Esqueda’s immigration status or his alleged deportations.
The responsibility for conducting criminal prosecutions rests with the district attorney. Given what we know (and what we don’t know) about this case and all the unforeseen developments that can arise in criminal prosecutions, this plea bargain, as unpopular as it seems, may be the best the district attorney’s office could do with this case.