In the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Manuel Real, the latest bail hearing for Alex Sanchez, held took a sharp turn on Wednesday morning, causing Sanchez supporters to bask cautiously in what seemed to be a small but tangible glimmer of hope.
The changed atmosphere at the hearing seemed presaged when Sanchez was ushered into the courtroom in casual slacks and a shirt, rather than the jail house jumpsuit and shackles that have characterized his previous appearances. On the way in, he managed to flash his family a smile that, while it did not exactly make it to cheerful, was clearly striving for upbeat.
At the last bail hearing, Judge Real repeatedly interrupted and corrected Sanchez’s court-appointed attorney, Kerry Bensinger, disallowing most of the material that Bensinger sought to present in order to counter the prosecution’s contention that Sanchez should be denied bail as he was both dangerous and a flight risk. However yesterday’s Judge Real appeared to be in a whole different mood and, while he questioned Bensinger at times, he remained even tempered.
This time around, most of Judge Real’s most aggressive challenges were aimed at the younger of the two government prosecutors, Elizabeth Carpenter, who grew visibly flustered at Real’s sudden change in direction.
Perhaps the oddest moment in the exchange was when Carpenter told the judge that the defendant’s supporters had “publicly stated” that Sanchez “could not get a fair trial” in Real’s court.
Well, what evidence did she have of such a thing? the judge wanted to know. (Cough—this blog and the Nation magazine—cough, cough) Surely the defendant and his lawyer had not stated that?
“No, no,” said Carpenter, back-peddling rapidly, Mr. Bensinger had not made any such statements. “But the defendant’s supporters certainly have, including one who had signed an affidavit of surety.”
(At this, veteran civil rights attorney Jorge Gonzalez elbowed Tom Hayden who, at an earlier hearing, had offered his house as part of a guarantee of bail for Sanchez. Hayden studiously ignored the elbowing.)
Judge Real, however, fastened on to the statement with gusto. “But those are lay people,” he roared. “They don’t know anything about the law!” Appearing fond of his words, Real repeated them. “That’s someone who knows absolutely nothing about the law!”
Then Real fixed Carpenter with a steely gaze. Surely she wasn’t trying to paint the defendant with those statements, he asked her. At that Carpenter backed away from the subject altogether and turned to explaining why Sanchez was a flight risk.
This too, Real challenged.
Well, where exactly would he flee to? the judge wanted to know. Carpenter hesitated. “Where will he go?” Real asked again. After all, Real pointed out, Sanchez had been granted political asylum because of the danger El Salvador presented to him, did the government have any reason to believe he would flee there?
The government did. But in a complete 180 from his hardline view of Sanchez’s flight risk potential at the last bail hearing, Real further questioned the prosecution’s assumption. Carpenter was left muttering something about Sanchez fleeing to South American countries without extradition treaties while the judge looked exasperated.
Yet the most startling incident came slightly later in the hearing when Carpenter was explaining why Sanchez was too dangerous and gang involved to be granted bail and Real again challenged her assertions. Had Sanchez been arrested or had any kind of negative police contact in the years between the asylum decision and the case before the court? Sanchez asked. He had not, Carpenter admitted.
Well, Judge Real said finally, “Isn’t there a possibility that you and Mr. Bensinger can get together and choose someone, maybe the person in charge of gang programs for the City, or someone of like authority with the LAPD who could come in and testify whether they have any evidence of continuing gang involvement by Mr. Sanchez. Perhaps we could arrange for a closed hearing to allow that person to testify frankly without fear of revealing critical information.” [These notes on dialogue are approximate.]
The 40 or so observers in the court tried not to stare open-mouthed.
And with that, Judge Real ordered the hearing to resume on January 13, 2010, at 10:00 a.m. The gavel came down. And that was that.
“What to make of it?” wrote Jorge Gonzalez when he emailed me later. “Who knows? Is the Judge merely making like he is sincerely considering the defense arguments for the appellate courts and the public?” (As a trial attorney, Gonzalez is very familiar with Real and his courtroom habits.) “Maybe, but if he leaves the door open a crack [Bensinger] is obligated to stick a foot in and put forth more positive evidence for him to consider. He will make the case that surely there must be a way that, given certain conditions, the rights of the defendant and considerations of the safety of the community can be satisfied.” It looked like supporters came out of the courtroom cautiously hopeful, he said, “that they might be able to persuade the Judge of the merits of that statement.”
Tom Hayden’s reaction was similar. “Taken literally,” he wrote in his own email after the hearing, “the judge’s order means that the city’s top gang reduction official, Guillermo Cespedes, and a top LAPD gang expert appointed by the new Chief Charles Beck would be asked, or even subpoenaed, to state what they know about Alex Sanchez from the past decade. Since city and police officials have often collaborated with Sanchez in the past, the public record might place them at odds with former CRASH officer Frank Flores, the prosecution’s expert witness.”
But, like Gonzales, Hayden was reluctant to be too optimistic. “There is no predicting whether this represents an unprecedented approach to conflict resolution,” he wrote, “or merely a step by the judge to prove to the critics that he is holding an exhaustive hearing, and armor-plating himself against a future appeal, before denying Sanchez bail once again. ”
And so the all-too-human legal drama continues. Stay tuned.
PS: And, for those of you who are not as entirely riveted by the Sanchez drama as some of the rest of us, take a look at this article on the already controversial UCLA study that contends legalizing undocumented immigrants would boost California’s sagging economy. Anna Gorman reports for the LA Times.
PPS: OMG, how could I have missed this?! Apple has rented a stage at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in SF on January
26 [changed to Wed, 1/27] for a “a major product announcement.” OMG! OMG! Could it be? An Apple tablet! An iReader! (Cue loud version of Apple boot-up cord along with visual of Apple logo bathed in heavenly shaft of light.)
David Carr at the NY Times is busy making up possible names for the possible thang (which is already possibly named the iSlate).
Hmmm. Must cut down on consumption of food and electricity so that I can afford the doubtlessly absurdly expensive gadget if indeed it is to be introduced in exactly 20 days. (Not that I’m counting.)
(And yes, this is a social justice issue. How could you think otherwise?)
PPPS: Oh, yeah, and the governor gave some kind of speech. More on that later on.