Between a rock and a hard place: Questions surround Placer DA charges for Colfax youths

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Did District Attorney Brad Fenocchio go too far in the case of three Colfax-area youths his office has elevated to adult court from the juvenile justice system? Or is it a case of not going far enough in not proceeding with tougher charges? Hunter Perez, 16, Samuel Edward Quinlan, 16, and Sean Edwin Steele, 17, are being tried in adult court, despite being under 18, being charged with a crime where no one was killed, and the use of a rock and not a firearm in the offense is alleged. The three – all Colfax High School football players when the July 26 incident took place – are charged with felony assault causing serious bodily injury related to a motorist who was hit by a rock thrown off an Interstate 80 overpass. No one the Journal talked to is arguing that the decision by Fenocchio’s office to charge the three in adult court is not based on a solid legal foundation. Fenocchio, who is retiring as District Attorney at the end of 2010 after 16 years, said he couldn’t comment on specifics of the case or the criteria in making the decisions his office did because it could jeopardize future proceedings. “We follow the law and we do exactly what it tells us to do,” Fenocchio said. What is open for interpretation is whether prosecutors are handling the youths too harshly for the allegations by boosting the case into adult court. Dean Starks, who is representing Steele, said that the case should be in juvenile court but that the district attorney does have the authority under Prop. 21 to step the case up to adult court. Prop. 21 was adopted in 2000, with 62 percent of California voters in favor of changes in the state constitution that increased punishments for gang-related felonies and included a provision now in the Welfare and Institutions Code that required more juvenile offenders to be tried in adult court. Only Bay Area counties voted against the measure. Starks said that the move to have more juveniles tried in the adult courts and leaving that decision with district attorneys rather than judges is a step backward. “It’s the public saying that judges are weak or soft on crime – but they’re not,” Starks said. Professor Floyd Feeney, of the UC Davis School of Law, said that the case in Placer County could be charged by the District Attorney in a variety of ways based on the size of rocks and the intent associated with the incident. With prosecutors allowed the discretion to move the case to adult court, its not unusual for district attorneys in rural counties like Placer – where criminal cases are historically charged higher – to weigh political ramifications too, Feeney said. “If one looks at whether anything legally is wrong, the answer is ‘no,’” Feeney said. “If what is being done is wise and justice is somewhat in the eye of the beholder.” Around the U.S. as well as California, there is a tremendous variation in how cases similar to the Colfax one are charged, he said. At the other end of the spectrum, if victim Jose Palomera – a church pastor from Sacramento – had been killed, the three would have been charged with murder, Feeney said.. In an incident eerily similar to the Colfax overpass rock-throwing, two Spartanburg, N.C. youths were charged with murder in April after a 23-year-old woman was hit with a rock that passed through the vehicle’s windshield while driving under a freeway underpass. And echoing comments made in Placer County, Richmond County Sheriff Dale Furr called the killing one of the most senseless acts he’d witnessed in more than 30 years of law enforcement. John Myers, a juvenile justice teacher at Sacramento’s McGeorge School of Law, said that if there had been a death, the three would have been charged with murder. But because the victim survived, prosecutors would have a near-impossible case proving intent to attempt murder, he said. “It would be a stretch,” Myers said, cautioning that didn’t have access to information on the case other than what has been released through the media. “It’s very unlikely that there was intent to hurt anybody.” But the move to adult court is sending a signal that the district attorney is treating it as a serious offense, he said. Instead of attempted murder, the District Attorney’s Office is prosecuting Perez, also known as Hunter Owens, Quinlan and Steele on charges of assault causing serious injury and assault with a deadly weapon. Palomera was struck in the face as he was driving Union Pacific workers in the early morning hours and passing under the Canyon Way overcrossing in Colfax. The felony complaint filed by the District Attorney’s Office states the three youths initially threw gravel off the overcrossing but then left and came back with rocks and a barricade. Two semi-trucks were also struck but no occupants were injured in the other vehicles. Palomera spent five days in a hospital with serious facial injuries and visited Auburn in mid-July for an early court appearance by the three. At that time, Palomera said the youths should be made examples of in an attempt to show that incidents like the July 26 one that left him suffering from nightmares as well as a broken jaw aren’t being treated lightly by the courts. Paul Comiskey, a Newcastle attorney handling juvenile cases, said that if Prop. 21 hadn’t passed, the three youths would have been making appearances in juvenile court. And that wouldn’t necessarily mean an easier encounter with the justice system, he said. “In some cases, juvenile courts can do bad things, like sending someone to the California Youth Authority for a misdemeanor,” he said. The proceedings in a juvenile court environment would be much more private. In adult court, the youth’s names were released along with a detailed felony complaint. Juvenile court proceedings are open only to family members, witnesses and court employees. Names are withheld and proceedings are closed. Comiskey said that elevating a case to adult court has one advantage in some cases. It allows juveniles to have a jury trial. And while most people would think otherwise, juveniles can receive a felony “strike” in juvenile court proceedings, he said. Whatever judicial route the three boys move through, they’ll hate it, said Colfax resident Bill Walling. Sentencing options for the most serious of the youths’ charges range from an upper end of four years in state prison to less than a year in the county jail. The youths could also be sentenced to the California Youth Authority incarceration facility. “As far as the punishment, it’s going to be the same,” Walling said. “Our rehabilitation system is terrible. It just allows them to be taught by others how to be worse than before they got there. It’s not like summer camp.” John Davenport, another Colfax resident, said the District Attorney’s Office should have charged the three in juvenile court. “It was spur of the moment,” Davenport said. “They were kids being dumb and there was no reason why they did it.”