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
Humphrey is in the thick of things in Bakersfield. Coincidentally, he is married to the judge in Scott’s case, Colette Humphrey, who also is a former prosecutor. Someone from Bakersfield recently wrote a letter to the editor of The Californian suggesting that Humphrey run for D.A. in 2006 against Jagels, who currently is going through a messy divorce. (Humphrey happens to represent Jagels’ wife, who is addicted to painkillers, and who has been charged with passing phony prescriptions.)
Humphrey says the only way to keep prosecutors honest is to force them to prove their case in court, which he concedes is a terrifying prospect in a county where so many working poor people have criminal records and are stuck in a cycle of poverty and unemployment. “But institutionally, the bean counters have forced the Public Defender’s Office to provide mass legal service at the cheapest price,” he says.
The insidious truth about Kern County, Humphrey says, is that getting people behind bars is the number-one goal, regardless of their personal circumstances. “It’s a formula for lifestyle devastation in the worst cyclical sort of way,” he says. “If that’s all you care about, you pave the way for future criminality.”
It is December 19, and a month has passed since his wife was taken into custody. Kershaun Scott, wearing eyeglasses and a black turtleneck, plants his feet on the carpet in front of the bailiff’s desk, squares his shoulders and faces Judge Colette Humphrey. He is ready to be sentenced. Across the courtroom, Vanessa Scott, due to be released today, is shackled at the ankles, handcuffed and wearing prison garb. She is wringing her hands and bouncing her right leg nervously up and down.
Scott’s lawyer, T.D. Pham, stands next to his client. He has petitioned the court to eliminate Scott’s prior strikes, charge him with a misdemeanor, and suspend his sentence on grounds that he was 15 when he committed murder and that the Scotts have paid the remaining balance of their welfare debt, $2,460. Including bail money, court fines and fees he has been assessed by Kern County, Scott estimates he owes friends who have come to his aid close to $20,000.
The tension is thick. Along with his petition for leniency, Pham has attached letters from a youth-development director, Scott’s speaking agent and two friends of the family. The letters urge the court to consider Scott’s escape from gang life, his commitment to his family and his contribution to society as a speaker and activist.
As court comes to order, Staiger, the prosecutor, doesn’t want to give any quarter. He argues, based on Scott’s prior criminal record, against reducing his felony to a misdemeanor. But three strikes does not apply, the judge says, and the D.A.’s Office had already agreed to reduce the welfare charge to a misdemeanor if the money is paid.
“Oh . . . that’s right, your honor,” Staiger says.
Then, with one last opportunity to persuade the judge to forgo jail time for his client, Pham meekly asks the court to grant Scott time served and an alternate sentence of community service. “But if the court insists on jail time, we ask that it not begin until December 26,” Pham blurts out, “so my client can be with his family on Christmas.”
Scott shakes his head in disbelief. Now he knows he is going to jail. The judge had acknowledged that three strikes was bogus to begin with, and had backed Staiger into a corner, but the moment has been lost on Pham.
Humphrey has done all she is willing to do to keep Staiger in line without publicly outing him for his three-strikes shell game, which she had originally endorsed. She sentences Scott to two six-month terms in county jail, to run simultaneously, rather than consecutively — thus wiping out the second gratuitous count of welfare fraud Staiger has thrown in. Then the judge disqualifies the Scotts from receiving food stamps for a year, and prohibits Vanessa from receiving cash aid for three years and Kershaun permanently.
Outside the court, Pham says he’s happy at least that the Scotts get to spend Christmas together.
Several days later, Scott and his wife pull together some sort of holiday celebration at their two-bedroom apartment in Ridgecrest, where a wind chime with red ribbons hangs beside the front door and the master bedroom is set up in the living room next to a flammable-looking 3-foot tree with fewer presents scattered around it than usual.
Scott appears at ease with his four children and the family’s Chihuahuas Taco and Tequila running around and some Gil Scott-Heron on the stereo. His ordeal with Kern County lawyers and the court is over, and he just has to do his time — something he knows how to do.
The day after Christmas, he returns to Bakersfield to turn himself in, and within a day, he finds himself right back at the courthouse in Bakersfield, assigned to clean-up duty as one of Kern County’s inmate labor crew.
Then something unusual happens. A Sheriff’s deputy informs him that he might be eligible for work release, a program whereby an inmate pays a fee to be released from jail while they work full time for the county without pay. Vanessa had qualified for work release but McNamara, her lawyer, talked her out of it, advising her to do time instead. When the deputy punches Scott’s name into the computer, however, his criminal record sets off some alarms, and he is sent to the high-security pre-trial facility at Lerdo.