By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Jill Stewart
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“Mr. Scott has a serious criminal record,” Staiger said in a telephone interview in November. When asked, he claims Scott’s soured relations with Ridgecrest police never factored into the case’s calculations. “Welfare fraud is a serious offense, and we charge based on the amount of the loss, prior criminal record and level of cooperation. And frankly, the Scotts have contested everything at every level, including at the [welfare office]. They have intimidated everyone they have come into contact with.”
Which is how he comes to be in the courtroom on this dreary mid-November day when the Sheriff’s deputy hauls his wife away while Scott contemplates his own sentencing, just a month away. Great holidays for the kids, he thinks: Mom gets out in time for Christmas, but Dad goes in. Despite all that, though, Scott still isn’t ready to concede to the way things work in Kern County. He feels like he knows the law and his rights better than his “public offender,” and he’s not convinced that his criminal record warrants a three-strikes prosecution. He’s more convinced that the D.A. duped him and — more to the point — Pham.
After seeing Vanessa off, Scott decides to pay Pham a visit at the Kern County Public Defender’s Office, adjacent to the courthouse in downtown Bakersfield. In Scott’s eyes, Pham has acted as little more than a messenger for the District Attorney’s Office. Pham is so lackluster in Scott’s eyes that Scott writes a letter to the judge stating that he entered a coercive plea because he lacked confidence in his lawyer. “I know nothing about how these welfare cases work, or how they come up with the figures,” Scott quotes Pham as saying. “The district attorney says this is how much you owe.” According to Scott, Pham also told him the only way he’d beat the rap is to hire the town’s most notorious and expensive trial lawyer for $15,000.
Pham, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is slight and wears glasses. He looks startled to see Scott. But given the look of frustration on his client’s face, Pham invites him into his office to review his case, along with deputy public defender Arthur Titus. During the meeting, Scott says, Titus opens a law book and notes that three strikes does not apply to a serious felony by a 15-year-old. Titus did not return calls for comment.
Even Kern County public defender Mark Arnold, when visited in his office, scratches his head over Scott’s case. “Judging from his background, [Scott] sounds like a success story,” he says. Arnold is politically shrewd and an outspoken critic of three strikes, particularly as it is wielded in Kern County. But he abstains from criticizing the District Attorney’s Office. Rather, he claims a small number of judges account for the high percentage of prison sentences, and for stiff punishments that don’t seem to fit the crime. “It is conceivable that some judges in Kern County would send this young man away for 50 years,” Arnold says of Scott.
“You’ll never find another county like this,” he continues, pointing to cases in which prosecutors agreed to remove a previous strike from defendants’ records but the judges imposed long-term sentences anyway. “We’ve got people serving 25-to-life for stealing razor blades. It’s tragic.”
Jagels, the district attorney, who calls Arnold a good friend, also points to the judges as the defining cog in the wheel of local justice. It is the presiding judge’s policy, Jagels says, that requires if a defendant turns down one deal from a prosecutor, the deal gets worse. Kern County Presiding Judge Stephen Gildner did not return calls for comment.
Playing hardball is what the voters want, Jagels insists. Sure, his office loses more trials than prosecutors in other counties, he says, but they also try more cases with weaker evidence than in other counties, and that raises the stakes for people who want to take their chances in front of a Kern County jury, or a Kern County judge.
“If this office’s reputation is for overcharging, then that’s not all bad in my book,” he says. “The fact is, by trying tougher cases, we’ve raised the bar on what is considered a beneficial plea bargain. People get annoyed that a misdemeanor in Los Angeles is a felony here. But we do justice in Kern County in accordance with the will of the people. We must be careful that San Francisco doesn’t define the norm.”
Sitting in Marie Callender’s in Bakersfield after his meeting with Pham, and after his wife has gone to jail, Scott is beleaguered. “When Titus went and looked up the law on three strikes, that let me know the prosecutor ran over Pham and the judge did nothing about it,” Scott says. “I know I have the right to claim my lawyer was ineffectual and withdraw my plea, but here in Kern County, I’m afraid of what might happen.”
As well he should be, according to Kyle Humphrey, a former prosecutor reputed to be one of the top private defense lawyers in Bakersfield. “It is an incredibly coercive system,” says Humphrey, propping his feet up on his desk one day in November. “Even if someone is not guilty but has the chance to opt out of three-strikes prosecution, they do it every time.”