|Photos by Ted Soqui|
Moments before she surrenders to authorities, Vanessa Scott clutches a small backpack in a dank basement hallway of Kern County Superior Court in Bakersfield. She fights back tears, waiting to be taken to Lerdo Detention Facility for 30 days on a two-bit welfare-fraud charge. Her husband, Kershaun Scott, paces nearby. The two have been in a long, nasty war of attrition with Kern County justice, one that has the legendary former gangster questioning why he and his wife packed up three kids in 1996 and moved to Ridgecrest, a windy desert town of 25,000 about 150 miles northeast of Los Angeles. They were happy to provide their kids with a geographic fix for the violence Scott knew all too well growing up in South-Central. They had not heard the saying “Kern County: Come for vacation, leave on probation.”
In a month from this mid-November morning, around the time his wife gets out, Scott will face sentencing after accepting a plea bargain on the same welfare charge. Scott took the deal under threat of a three-strikes felony jury trial that would have had him facing 50-to-life. What he did not know when he took the deal was that his lawyer was browbeaten into believing Scott was in more trouble than he really was.
Back in the day, he could have faced worse for the gang activities he excelled at. Now 38, Scott is still known in Los Angeles as “Li’l Monster,” a name he earned by following in the footsteps of his older brother, Kody “Monster” Scott, an original gangster with the Eight Tray Crips. When he was 15, Kershaun Scott shot and killed one teenager and injured four others to avenge the nonfatal shooting of his brother. He was tried as a minor, convicted of murder, and served five years with the California Youth Authority. Scott quit that life more than a decade ago; his most recent crime is that his wife received cash aid and food stamps while he earned unreported income at Del Taco. After all he’s seen and done, Scott never thought he would go to jail while working a straight job. Then again, he hadn’t yet seen to what lengths Kern County would go to lock people up.
As Brian McNamara, Vanessa’s ruddy court-appointed attorney, arrives for the sendoff, the couple vent their frustration.
“I wanted to do 90 days of work release, but you talked me out of it,” says Vanessa, who pleaded no contest on August 7, 2003, as part of the Scotts’ deal with prosecutors.
“We had 10 minutes to discuss the deal and you were gone,” says Scott, who also pleaded no contest.
“We confirmed the arrangement and you were comfortable,” McNamara replies in a thick brogue, advising Vanessa to calm down and get her 30 days over with. “If Kershaun’s past hadn’t come up, it wouldn’t have been a big deal,” he adds.
The lawyer irks the couple. He downplays their situation with wisecracks moments before Scott watches a Kern County Sheriff’s deputy slap the bracelets on Vanessa and lead her away. A burly 5-foot-8 and 200 pounds with only superficial markings of “the life” remaining, Scott wears creased Guess jeans, held up with a belt featuring a “G” buckle. Tattoos on his neck and forearm read “Vanessa” and “Li’l Monster Eight Tray Crips.” A small teardrop tattoo rests just below his left eye. But flecks of gray in his braided hair and a deep, furrowed brow render him more a worried husband and father.
In addition to being an ex-gangster, Scott is a writer and a speaker who has reached out to youth all over the country. He is scarred by his past yet unapologetic. It made him who he is. By communicating with at-risk youth in the inner city, he believes he has made a difference.
“I just wanted to raise my kids some place quiet, where they could go to school and learn and just be kids,” Scott says as he turns to leave.
Scott admits he and his wife broke the law. They did it for their children, he says. He concedes his flaws. For instance, he has trouble controlling his emotions at times, and he tends to disregard rules that he thinks should not apply to him. Yet he is a stickler for detail when the legal system is coming down on him. And he maintains a “come and get me” stance when he feels threatened.
He’s felt threatened for some time now. Authorities are about to take him away from a family he and Vanessa are struggling to keep together. He sees his crime as petty — something he needed to do to keep his financially strapped family afloat. What’s more, he and his wife are going to jail even though they have been paying back their welfare debt to the Department of Human Services, where the motto is: “Building Healthy Families.”
The way this has all played out, Scott can’t help but feel that local authorities have singled him out, falsely painted him as a threat to society and slapped him with a convoluted three-strikes case predicated on a juvenile felony murder conviction that according to California law shouldn’t count as a strike — something that should have been obvious to his lawyer, a public defender named T.D. Pham.
In leaving Los Angeles, the Scotts acted on a popular impulse. Migration from the sprawling cities and suburbs of Southern California to inexpensive, mostly rural Kern County has increased in recent years. Once settled in, however, they found that a cleaner, safer, more affordable environment comes with a price. Scott has also found that retired gangsters who avoid the penitentiary or the grave may become popular public figures for a time, but they still get treated like gangsters if they question authority in a place where most people know better.
According to the state Attorney General’s Office, Kern County, with a population of 650,000, sends as many people to prison each year per capita as Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties combined. Most of those convictions are not for murder, rape or robbery, however. They are for low-level drug offenses, welfare fraud and workers’ compensation fraud. Kern County also boasts the most prisons and is responsible for the highest rate of reversed convictions in the state. So, in addition to its oil, cotton and grape fields — and less visible meth labs — Kern County is tagged as a mostly white, conservative Republican stronghold where cops kick ass, prosecutors play hardball, judges and juries are heartless, and defendants take a raw deal or suffer the consequences.
Many take issue with Kern County’s rap as a redneck backwater that metes out draconian punishment to nonviolent offenders for sport. Chief among them is District Attorney Edward Jagels, who has ruled with an iron fist for more than
“A salaried person can own a house with a pool, a barbecue, live in a clean neighborhood and attend decent schools — things most people in Los Angeles can only dream about,” Jagels says, heralding Kern County’s virtues. “But this is a working-class county with high rates of teen pregnancy, dropout and illiteracy, which translates to [single mothers], unemployment, poverty and crime.”
Jagels is tired of the flack from city slickers to the south. “We’re used to being stereotyped and treated with amused contempt by [Los Angeles],” he says. “Our justice system functions like theirs or any other. And compared to other similar counties, we have a lower crime rate because we send more criminals to prison. We stop them from committing more crime.”
Despite Kern County’s law-and-order ethos, it has gained a seedy reputation based both on sensationalistic trials and salacious accounts of local corruption.
The county seat of Bakersfield and its 54-year-old D.A. are no strangers to unflattering, and sometimes lurid, media depictions. In 1999, a former Orange County Register reporter wrote “Mean Justice” — a scathing indictment of allegedly corrupt law-enforcement officials and local power brokers, including Jagels for sanctioning wrongful convictions. In 2003, The Bakersfield Californian published an in-depth report in response to stubborn rumors that a corrupt, gay elite has ruled Bakersfield for years. Jagels, whose slain former assistant and close friend, Deputy District Attorney Stephen Tauzer, was the catalyst for the series, bore considerable scrutiny for Tauzer’s allegedly inappropriate relationship with a troubled teen.
Jagels dismisses “Mean Justice” as a “screed.” He has characterized Kern County conspiracy theories as “lunacy.” He accuses The Californian of “making bedfellows with the fringe.” Yet controversy hounds the D.A., who has run unopposed in the last three elections. One local defender says of him, “Jagels is reviled by the common man around here. He’s turned the D.A.’s Office into an empire. And to maintain an empire, you have to boast statistics.”
Scott is convinced that truth is worse than legend. “It’s bad in Kern County,” says Scott, who has seen the inside of Lerdo Detention Facility in Bakersfield, which can be violent. “Up here they got guys trying to kill themselves like I’ve never seen before.”
Kershaun Scott was born in Los Angeles in 1965, one of six children, to Ernest and Birdie Mae Scott. He had a normal upbringing in Crenshaw until the family moved to 69th Street and Denker Avenue, in South-Central, and his father faded from the scene.
“Despite popular opinion, I was not born with an AK-47 in my hand,” he says. “I played football and Little League baseball and went to the library. But eventually there was nothing there but the Crips. You could be a victim, or not. I chose not to be.”
In the 1980s, “Li’l Monster” Scott cut a menacing figure. “Unfortunately, like everything in my life, I gave it my all,” he says. “I was an all-around gang member. I would get out in the street and fight, write my name or my gang’s name on the wall, I would rob you, shoot you, do whatever it took to promote my hood and my name. I believe my brother and I took gangbanging to another level. We lived by a creed: If you hit me, I will kill you. It wasn’t get even, it was get one up.”
Scott rose quickly within the Eight Tray Crips, until his conviction for avenging the shooting of his brother in 1981. Fresh out of prison in 1986, he renewed the gang life, which by then included dealing crack. Although he says he never touched the drug, he concedes enabling it to ravage others. In 1989, however, he had a son, whom he named Kershaun II, and began studying history and talking to people in the community about ending gang violence.
Though by 1992 he was not active in the daily gang violence surrounding him, Scott claims he and his friends were instigators of the riots that began at Florence and Normandie following the Rodney King verdict. “There were homies who said, ‘Let’s get some signs and have a peaceful protest,’” Scott says. “I’m not gonna lie to you, I said, ‘Let’s rip shit up, let’s show the powers that be how we feel.’”
When police withdrew and the media swooped in, Scott stepped into the limelight. His articulateness landed him numerous appearances on Nightline. Soon, other shows came calling. “I was in New York doing Donahue, and they rolled footage of my homies being arrested by [former Los Angeles Police Chief] Daryl Gates,” Scott says. “Phil Donahue was like, ‘You know these people?’” He also began lecturing in colleges and juvenile detention facilities around the country, and sitting in on call-in radio shows to counsel at-risk youth.
In the wake of the riots, while already a media darling, Scott helped negotiate a historic gang truce, which further elevated his profile as a leader and community spokesman. In 1992, Tupac Shakur’s manager saw him on Nightline and invited him to Atlanta to work with the Malcolm X Center for Self-Determination, which led to a stint on Shakur’s payroll when the rapper went on tour.
“I think Tupac’s manager wanted to pull him out of that gangster shit, and he knew ’Pac looked up to me,” Scott says. “Whenever he was in L.A., he would call me and we’d hang. There always seemed to be famous people around.”
While his brother Kody, who changed his name to Sanyika Shakur in prison while authoring the best-selling 1993 book Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member, succumbed to drug addiction and recidivism, Scott majored in history at California State University, Long Beach, worked on a memoir and concentrated on being a father. An ace student and prodigious reader, he has a photographic memory of places, dates and historical events.
“I never met ‘Li’l Monster,’” his wife, Vanessa, who started seeing her future husband in 1993, likes to say. “That person was gone by the time I met Kershaun.”
Not that Vanessa Scott, 29, had been sheltered. Her mother died when Vanessa was a newborn, after suffering a brain injury at the hands of her drug-addicted father. She was raised in foster homes, including Los Angeles’ hellish McLaren Hall, which closed last year. Vanessa had her first son, Shelton, when she was 16, and her second, Vanse, a year later. A single mother with little to fall back on except a general-equivalence degree, she worked as a telemarketer while earning her associate’s degree and became a cardiac technician.
By the time she met Scott, he had a second son, Karon, from a former relationship. Vanessa and Scott dated on and off for a couple years before having a daughter, Kathryn, in 1995. Scott helped raise Vanessa’s kids from an early age, while he paid child support to the mother of Kershaun II and Karon, at times caring for them himself.
“It’s the manly thing to do,” says Scott, whose children ask permission before watching TV and do their homework right after school. “They always see me with a book in my hand,” he says. Scott also encourages his sons to be unafraid of emotion. “I let my kids see me cry,” he says. “When my son says, ‘Dad, why are you crying?’ I tell him, ‘Because that’s the way I feel right now, son.’”
“Our kids are not your typical raised-in-Los Angeles kids,” Vanessa says with pride.
By 1996, however, the couple was experiencing marital problems due to Scott’s touring schedule and the pressures of raising children in a community in decay. In an effort to escape, and stay together, they dropped everything and moved to Ridgecrest. “I didn’t tell my agent where I went, I didn’t tell any of my friends, I didn’t even tell my own mother,” Scott says.
But the couple’s personal baggage went with them, including Scott’s criminal record, anger-management issues and the struggle to stay close with his sons, who remained in Los Angeles with their mother. He still has concerns for them. “I worry my 14-year-old is going to follow in my footsteps, like I did my brother’s,” he says.
Yet Ridgecrest became home. Newly married, Vanessa worked in a coffee shop and Scott at Blimpie’s and then Del Taco while pecking away at his memoir. On weekends he coached Little League and mingled with other parents, some of them Ridgecrest police officers. “We were like baseball dad and baseball mom,” Vanessa says.
While some Little League parents knew of his past, Scott says they accepted him. In 1998, the couple had another daughter, Kaprise, who barely survived a difficult birth. With a house full of kids and scant resources available to them, the couple had been on cash aid and food stamps since 1996. Scott kept working and failed to report his income.
Reporting it seemed unnecessary. “The cash aid was for the kids [in Ridgecrest], and my paycheck went to my kids in Los Angeles,” he says. “It was always zero when I got it.”
In July 2002, the couple separated after a stressful time in which Kershaun II and Karon lived in Ridgecrest. Six kids were too much at once, Scott says. Vanessa threatened to divorce him and later obtained a restraining order. Unplugged from the most fundamental relationship of his life, he contemplated suicide. He was treated for severe depression and posttraumatic stress disorder, related to his breakup, and recurring violent visions of his youth. Plus his mother, who had been an inspiration, was seriously ill, with kidney failure.
“I’ve lost too many people in my life,” Scott explains of his decision to seek help. “You know, there’s a lot of people in South-Central that are so depressed they don’t even know it. They think it’s because they’re having a bad day.”
Angry and fearful of losing his children, in the early-morning hours of August 8, 2002, Scott went to the couple’s house and found Vanessa with a previous boyfriend and another man. Accounts of that evening vary, but it set off a negative chain of events.
According to Ridgecrest Police Chief Michael Avery, who read from a report filed by Vanessa that morning, Scott climbed through the window carrying a gun, grabbed the telephone from her hand as she called for help, and demanded that the two men get down on the ground, as she ran from the house.
Officers arrived at the scene after Scott left and took statements from the two men that matched Vanessa’s statement, which she gave at a separate location. No one was hurt. A few days later, when her husband was arrested, Vanessa told police there was no gun on August 8 and that she had let him in the door that night.
“I lied,” says Vanessa of her report to the police, during an interview at Lerdo Detention Facility last month.
“Vanessa was mad at me and wanted to hurt me,” Scott says. “She was acting stupid, I was acting stupider.”
The couple reunited, but they had made some new enemies. Scott says the August 8 incident gave county officials the impetus to press the couple on their welfare status, which he says the county had been aware of since November 2001 but to which it had chosen to turn a blind eye. Now, though, Scott was branded as a welfare cheat and a troublemaker. “I became public enemy number one,” he says.
Prison bound: Vanessa on her
way to do 30 days.
Scott says that when the Kern County Department of Human Services contacted him, he told them his Del Taco wages were being garnished to pay child support. The county began deducting the amount of his wages from the family’s cash aid, he says, and eventually, unbeknown to him, charged him with welfare fraud in early February 2003, even though his wife was the cash-aid recipient.
Scott found out about the welfare-fraud charge the hard way. Ridgecrest police, who had not forgotten about Vanessa’s allegedly false report from the previous summer, stopped the couple in front of their apartment on February 26, 2003, for driving with a broken taillight. They pulled Scott from his car, and an officer drew his gun. His 4-year-old daughter was in the car and wet her pants she was so scared. Police handcuffed him, ran a check and found an outstanding warrant for welfare fraud, he says.
Vanessa, who lashed out verbally, was cited for obstructing a peace officer. A police report from February 27, 2003, states that Scott “had been known to carry firearms in the past,” and that he had been “reported to have been planning an armed robbery.” Yet police never bothered to search his car or his apartment for a gun, he says, and the reports of a planned robbery — which Scott says are ludicrous — were spurious at best since no robbery investigation ever took place.
Ridgecrest police began dogging Scott at every available opportunity, his wife says. Rumors surfaced that he was dealing drugs. “’Shaun couldn’t go out of the house without the police coming over and questioning him or threatening to arrest him,” Vanessa says.
“With my past I would have to be a complete idiot to be dealing drugs or doing anything remotely related to gangbanging,” Scott says.
Bruce Haggerty, a former Ridgecrest chief of police and now the chief of police in Chico, acknowledges that matters got out of hand. “I was impressed Kershaun made it out of Los Angeles and was up here trying to do what’s best for his kids,” says Haggerty, who was detective commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department’s 77 Division at the time of the 1992 riots. He and Scott had discussed the riots on Haggerty’s frequent visits to Del Taco, the chief says.
“I don’t know about armed robbery or drugs, that’s probably just people talking,” Haggerty continues. “Kershaun had [domestic problems] and I can relate to that. His marriage was falling apart and he did some real human things.”
Haggerty did nothing to call off the dogs, however. Nor did Avery, who succeeded him as chief of police in March 2003. And Scott did nothing to back down from what he saw as blatant harassment — calling officers “pig” and “coward,” according to one report.
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.”
“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.”
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.
But because there are so many bodies coming into the pre-trial facility and space is an issue, 10 days later Scott is sent to the minimum-security facility at Lerdo, known as “The Farm.” Scott soon notices that even at The Farm, federal population caps force county authorities to rotate a certain number of inmates out of the system each week, as the jail gets too full. “The maximum population is 900, so when they hit 850, they start looking for people to kick,” Scott says.
So, sizing up the situation, he decides to play Kern County’s game — placing people behind bars at a rate exceeding capacity — to his benefit. He applies again for work release, and this time informs officials that his high blood pressure places him at risk without access to a private physician. “I could just sit there and do nothing, or I could try to be reunited with my kids,” he says.
Scott is sitting with his wife at the Olive Garden in Bakersfield last Wednesday, having just been released from Lerdo. After paying a fee of $400, he has been assigned to a maintenance job at Cerro Coso Community College in Ridgecrest for the next four months. He cannot say exactly why his release was granted. “Kern County is a money machine,” Vanessa says. “They will take all your money, put you in jail, then for a little more money you can get out and work for the county, for free.”
Vanessa rests her head on Scott’s shoulder as the two describe some of the more hapless inmates they met while at Lerdo — people with worse stories and perhaps less resilience and luck than they. There’s Miss Helen, a 65-year-old woman with Crohn’s disease who had never been convicted of a crime in her life, but who was serving a year for Section 8 housing fraud after failing to notify authorities that she got married. And there is a woman named Lopez, who is also serving a year for welfare fraud. Authorities went all the way down to Florida to get her, Vanessa says, but never charged her husband, as they did Scott.
While in maximum, Scott says he met a man named Sutton, who was tried and sentenced to 15 years on a drug charge even though the only material evidence found on him was $97 in his pocket. “I could have been fighting my case on appeal for the next five years,” Scott says, oddly grateful for accepting his plea bargain and not going to trial.
Reflecting on the last month in Lerdo, Scott says he had tried to steer clear of trouble, including prison guards. Word had spread quickly that “Li’l Monster” was there, he says, and young Crips had made their way over to him to pay respect, offering him anything and everything, including drugs. “I gave them respect back,” he says, a bit perplexed by his enduring legend. “But these guys have no idea what they’ve gotten themselves into, or where that life is headed.”
Portrait of an American Family:
Kershaun Scott with wife Vanessa,
sons Vanse (with dog) and
Shelton, daughters Kathryn (top) and
Kaprice, and dogs Taco and Tequila
It is inevitable that Scott will always look over his shoulder, he says, wondering if the past will come back again to haunt him. Being in jail only heightened that anxiety, “right up until my feet left that yard,” he says. But the past may never catch up with him in as surreal a fashion as it did in Kern County, he says, turning his attention to Vanessa and her reports on how their children are doing.
He smiles at a group of elderly people singing “Happy Birthday” one table over. Nothing really he can do but look forward, Scott says, a little unsure of what he may do when his four months is up. There is a possible speaking engagement in Arizona, but that depends on his work release schedule. Whatever it is, trying to guide his children will be his highest priority. He and his only friend in Kern County, a retired Raymond Avenue Crip from Los Angeles, have taken to calling themselves “FGs” now, he says: “family guys.”
Scott says the only thing that’s for sure is that when his time is up, he will be leaving Kern County, maybe for Los Angeles, just not South-Central. As they pay their check and head out for the long drive back to Ridgecrest, climbing into a used Monte Carlo, he says, “It’s going to be good to get home.” Wherever that may be.