In a surprising development, a Santa Cruz County judge told a courtroom Monday that the state's case against four protesters accused of trespassing and vandalism last November at the vacant Coast Commerce Bank appeared to be lacking sufficient evidence to go to trial.
"I have to say that at first blush 'The People' might have some problems with these four defendants," Judge Paul P. Burdick said at the end of the first day of preliminary hearing.
The four defendants – Franklin Alacantara, Edward Rector, Grant Wilson and Cameron Laurendau – have been charged with felony conspiracy to commit vandalism, for being part of a takeover of the vacant bank at 75 River St. Nov. 30, which left the building with $22,000 of damage.
If convicted they could be sentenced to three years in prison and a fine that would cover the damages, according to prosecutor Rebekah Young. The prosecutor has claimed that by trespassing in the bank building, the suspects are guilty of the vandalism that resulted. She has filed a conspiracy charge that she says ties the trespass to the vandalism.
Four public defenders arguing against her said that because this is a first amendment protest, a higher standard of proof is needed, such as direct evidence of a crime.
More than 100 people were in and out of the bank building during the protest, according to testimony Monday. However, District Attorney Bob Lee and Santa Cruz Police only came up with enough evidence to charge 11 people. and videos on YouTube and Facebook asking the public to help identify suspects.
Evidence presented Monday seemed shaky during testimony by two Santa Cruz Police officers.
Officer William Winston said he saw two of the suspects going in and out of the bank building, but didn't witness them doing any vandalism, nor could he say how long they stayed in the building. Detective David Gunter saw none of the suspects at the bank, but as the officer put in charge of the investigation, he recognized them from videos and pictures taken by other officers.
However, he too could provide no evidence that they stayed in the building after being told to leave, one of the requirements for trespass. Nor could he provide evidence that they had met and organized the takeover, which would document the conspiracy charge.
"They are trying to scoop up too many people into a net," said defense attorney Jamyrson Pattori, after the judge asked the prosecutor to present more legal arguments via email before oral arguments continue Wednesday at 10 a.m.. "Some people were just looky-loos and some kids were just attracted to the music. They are just trying to incorporate everybody."
Judge Burdick asked Young, the prosecutor, to supply him with an email listing cases setting precedents for her arguments to be received by him and the defense attorneys by noon Tuesday. Then, the preliminary hearing would continue Wednesday.
A preliminary hearing is the chance for the judge to decide if there is enough evidence to hold a trial. Two of the 11, Alex Darocy and Bradley Stuart Allen, will be tried May 29. The others are still pending preliminary hearings.
Some other suprising things emerged in the hearing.
*The prosecutor asked to use photographs taken inside the bank by the defendants because, she said, they were better than the ones submitted by police.
Her request was denied because the photos were used in the hearing of Darocy and Allen, and hadn't been given to defense attorneys as part of discovery in this case.
*Police had three grenadiers standing by on November 30 prepared to launch chemical weapon grenades into the bank, if needed. Detective Gunter was one of them, but he said he was sent away after a short time appraising the takeover.
*The estimated cost of the damages dropped from $30,000 to &20,000-$22,000, after police asked the banks lessee, Wells Fargo, to provide itemized accounting of the repairs needed to fix the damage done by vandals who tore up pipes, damaged electrical fixtures, wrote on walls and piled up furniture to block doors.
*District Attorney Bob Lee assigned one of his newest prosecutors to the case. Rebekah Young, a former TV journalist, only started working for the office in December and this is her first big local case. She had no investigators or backup attorneys at her table, something unusual for such a high-profile case.
*It took the District Attorney three months to file the 11 charges in the case. They were filed February 9. The takeover started November 30 and lasted a couple of days.