The final bail hearing for Alex Sanchez began around 1:40 p.m. on Monday, October 18.
Every bench in courtroom on the second floor of the federal court on Spring Street was packed to the point of slight discomfort for the audience, with several reasonably prominent people turned away altogether because they came too late.
After Judge Manual L. Real opened the proceedings, he told Sanchez’s attorney, Kerry Bensinger, to speak first. Bensinger is a tall, fit, affable, very smart man and a skilled researcher who is court appointed, but has spent an astonishing amount of time on this case already.* His courtroom manner, however, while calm and intelligent, has thus far lacked the aggressiveness that he and his client may need.
And then there is U.S. District Court Judge Manual Real. Appointed in 1966 by Lyndon Johnson, at 85, Judge Real is what we used to call a character. He has spent 43 years on the same bench and projects an image that combines the demeanor of an irascible uncle who mutters loudly and tyrannically over his soup at Thanksgiving dinner, with that of a glowering bird of prey.
Bensinger told the judge that he would like to call to the stand Father Greg Boyle. The intention was to have the priest (who is frequently called as an expert witness in both state and federal trials) talk about the elements of the four wiretap conversations central to the prosecution’s case that he noted were discrepant from what the feds had said was on the recordings. Most importantly, Boyle would speak about the crucial section about Sanchez no longer being an active gang member that the prosecution had conveniently omitted from their filing. [Details here.]
It promised to be an interesting testimony.
On the way to the hearing I spoke to Greg about the four recordings and asked him if there was anything in the conversations that he thought was incriminating. “All the time I was listening, I kept bracing myself,” he said. “But it never came. There really isn’t anything.”
In an earlier hearing, the prosecution had called their own expert witness—LAPD detective Frank Flores—to characterize what was on the recordings. Attorneys in the audience assumed that Judge Real would permit Greg to take the stand in order to level the playing field.
Attorneys in the audience were wrong.
He did not need to hear from Father Greg, Judge Real shouted. (And when I say shouted, I am not being hyperbolic.) “It is not his interpretation that is important! It is that of the court!”
Bensinger tried to explain about the importance of the missing section that he said directly disputed the prosecution’s claim that Sanchez was an active gang member and a shot caller. But Judge Real was no longer listening. “That’s a matter for trial! Tri-al, counselor, don’t you understand?!”
Bensinger said he had another witness he intended to call, a woman who runs a prominent gang tattoo removal agency in LA County. Bensinger wanted her to rebut the prosecution’s earlier contention that, although Sanchez had all his visible gang tattoos removed, the fact that he still had one left on his chest proved that he was still an active gang member.
Real shouted down that idea too.
“She’s not competent to say anything one way or the other!” he roared.
The only thing that Judge Real would allow from Bensinger’s prepared presentation, was the cross examination of Det. Frank Flores. This basically meant that the prosecution was able to present a witness and multiple pieces of evidence–exhibits— to “prove” why Sanchez was an active gangster and flight risk, while the defense was allowed no countering witnesses, and no countering exhibits.
With a sigh, Bensinger proceeded.
Bensinger asked Detective Flores why he didn’t include the missing material about Sanchez not being an active gang member in his own court filing. [See previous post for details] Flores said he didn’t think it was important. Kerry pressed that point and Flores said that Camaron—the nickname of the now-dead El Salvadoran MS-13 gangster who made the remarks —was speaking “tongue in cheek.”
At this, there was audible muttering from the crowd. “So Cameron was a post modern gangster who was speaking ironically?” someone near to me whispered.
It was Bensinger’s contention that Sanchez threatened no one, and ordered no hits. To the contrary, said Bensinger, Sanchez was on the four calls in question to try to diffuse a situation in which several people—Sanchez prominently included—had been accused of being FBI informants. Because of this accusation, a Salvadoran gangtser with the nickname Cameron had caused a “green light” to be put on Sanchez and others. In other words, Cameron had ordered a hit on a number of people, including Sanchez. And Sanchez was trying use his contacts and personal influence to defuse what had become a volatile situation.
The issue of the FBI informant rumor and the “green light” are not in depute. What is in dispute and, based on the transcripts, open to interpretation, is what Alex Sanchez did about the threat.
One of the issues that Bensinger brought up during the cross examination was his contention that Flores completely and crucially misidentified a person on one of the calls, a guy with the street name of Zombie. According to Flores, the person, “Zombie,” on the phone call was also the person who was eventually arrested for the murder of Cameron, a murder that Sanchez had allegedly ordered during the last of the four phone calls that are the center of the prosecution’s case.
Yet, according to Bensinger, the guy called “Zombie” on the call was a very different fellow from Juan Bonilla, the killer, who is also called Zombie.
(I know this nickname business is dizzying, but try to stay with me here.)
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