By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
As Scott was dealing with an increasingly hostile situation in Ridgecrest, his welfare fraud case, along with his rap sheet, was making its way to the Kern County District Attorney’s Office in Bakersfield. And prosecutors there were just as focused on him as the cops in Ridgecrest were.
In preparing for its welfare-fraud case, the county claimed that the couple owed $7,648. But welfare fraud was only part of the equation. Bakersfield authorities had learned of Scott’s juvenile murder conviction in 1981, which included four counts of attempted murder. Scott claims that Deputy District Attorney Christopher Staiger would use those convictions as prior felony strikes to ram a pumped-up welfare-fraud case down his throat.
But first Scott was offered a chance to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and serve two months in jail, provided he pay back the money. Scott’s pride got the better of him. He disputed the amount the couple was charged with taking and pointed out that the county had mistakenly charged him with working a second job in Los Angeles. Feeling set up, Scott turned down the deal, which is the worst possible reaction by Kern County standards, where it’s guaranteed the next deal offered will be worse than the previous one.
Scott turned down another deal, to serve 16 months in jail, then another, to serve 32 months. Finally Vanessa was also charged. On May 16, 2003, Sheriff’s deputies arrested Scott and his wife and upped the counts to a felony against both of them, which to him seemed outrageous. His exact words to his lawyer were, “Tell the D.A. to go fuck himself.”
Aside from the legal case, which was going downhill fast, Scott noticed that Del Taco had over-reported his wages by $4,000 and that the county had added that amount to his welfare debt. And the court was racking up fines, at one point imposing a pointless $300 bail-extension penalty when Scott and his wife showed up late for a hearing because their car broke down on the two-hour drive from Ridgecrest to Bakersfield. Scott’s financial hole was getting deeper.
An even larger problem was emerging in the person of his lawyer — a lightweight in a place where legal muscle is required to take on the system. Not only could he not get his lawyer, Pham, to review the welfare amounts he was charged with taking, Pham appeared intimidated by both the prosecutor and the judge, Scott says.
Out on bail of $5,000, Scott went to court in Bakersfield in June for a preliminary hearing on the welfare case. Staiger threatened to try him for felony welfare fraud, which he said could result in 50-to-life under California’s three-strikes law if Scott didn’t plead guilty and take a reduced sentence. Kern County sheriffs took Scott into custody and raised his bail to $55,000.
Meanwhile, one of the few shots Scott could fire back on his own behalf proved to be a dud. A request he made through the local NAACP that the Ridgecrest police be investigated for smearing his name and violating his civil rights finally found its way to the Kern County grand jury. Grand jury foreman Charles Wright wrote to Scott on June 18, 2003, telling him that his claim had merit but that a new, incoming grand jury would have to continue the investigation. But Police Chief Avery conducted an internal investigation and informed Scott in a letter dated July 24 that no police misconduct occurred. Six days after Avery’s finding, on July 30, the grand jury dismissed Scott’s complaint as unsupported, paving the way for officials to throw the book at Scott.
Avery conceded in a recent telephone interview that the grand jury conducted no independent investigation of Scott’s harassment claim. “[The grand jury] asked me for a copy of our findings, and I gave it to them,” Avery told the Weekly.
With a number of cards to play, Staiger went to court on August 7 and got the plea agreement he was seeking by using a juvenile-murder conviction more than two decades old to hold three strikes over Scott’s head. The prosecutor also threw in what appeared to be an unwarranted second count of felony welfare fraud against Scott, which hearing transcripts show Pham failed to question. More importantly, Scott says, neither Pham, nor Vanessa’s lawyer, nor the judge, questioned whether Scott’s 1981 murder conviction was a bona fide strike.
“What’s going to happen is, you’re going to be pleading to the two counts of welfare fraud, which is a felony, they’re both felonies, [and] you’re going to admit you have those strike priors,” Judge Colette Humphrey said, according to the transcript. “If restitution is paid in full, the matter will become a misdemeanor and you [will] be sentenced to a year in county jail on one count and placed on misdemeanor probation on the other. Is that your understanding, sir?”
Should Scott reject the deal, his only option would be to face a Kern County jury staring at 50-to-life, with Pham as his lawyer. They had 10 minutes to decide.
“I made ’Shaun take that deal,” says Vanessa, who under the agreement would serve 30 days as human collateral until their debt was paid. “I heard 50-to-life and I was like, fine, game over, you win.”