Attorneys on Monday agreed to a stipulation that kept a Stanislaus County judge off the witness stand in a contempt-of-court hearing for a chief prosecutor and an investigator.
The attorneys for Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris and District Attorney’s Office Investigator Steve Jacobson agreed not to cross-examine Superior Court Judge Scott Steffen. On Friday, the attorneys said they wanted to question Steffen about what happened during a Jan. 8 hearing.
In exchange, Jared Beeson, a research attorney representing the court, agreed to withdraw from evidence a declaration about claims of improper conduct written by Steffen. The judge’s declaration initially was the basis for the contempt charges against Harris and Jacobson.
The incident is said to have occurred in the trial of Aleo John Pontillo, a Modesto bail bondsman acquitted of kidnapping for extortion and bail-forfeiture fraud charges Dec. 10.
Harris is accused of failing to promptly notify the court that Jacobson had improper contact with an alternate juror. Jacobson is accused of speaking to the alternate juror while the jury was deliberating in Pontillo’s trial.
Officers of the court know you don’t do it.
Defense attorney Frank Carson, about approaching a juror before a trial ends
Beeson said in court that there is still sufficient evidence to support the contempt charges based on declarations from the alternate juror, Jolinda Reddy, and Frank Carson, Pontillo’s attorney. Beeson also said Harris’ written response to the allegations and a transcript of a Jan. 8 hearing are submitted as evidence to support the charges.
In Harris’ response to allegations that Jacobson inappropriately spoke to the alternate juror, the prosecutor wrote that he told the investigator not to talk to anyone anymore about the issue until after the jury was done. Harris also explained to Jacobson that if the alternate had to be seated on the jury, they would then tell the court.
The stipulation included a statement from Beeson that Steffen never expressly ordered Jacobson not to speak to the jurors before the jury had concluded deliberation. Based on that statement, Michael Rains, Jacobson’s attorney, asked the court to dismiss the contempt charge against his client. He argued that nothing indicates Jacobson violated a court order, because there never was a court order directing the investigator not to speak to jurors.
Judge Linda McFadden denied Rains’ motion to dismiss, telling the attorney that the charge against the investigator is based on accusations of unlawful interference of the court process. “It’s the process of the court that we’re talking about here, not an order given to your client,” McFadden said.
Jurors are ordered not to talk to any witnesses during a trial. The judge said Jacobson going to the jury area to question three alternate jurors about the suspicion that they were being photographed put those people in a situation that they could violate a court order.
Reddy testified that she remembered Jacobson from when he testified in Pontillo’s trial.
Rains argued that jurors are ordered not to discuss anything about the case. He said Reddy testified that Jacobson never said anything about the case during his brief conversation with the alternate juror, only the suspected photo incident.
He also argued that Reddy testified that Jacobson never asked whether they were bothered that one of Pontillo’s supporters had photographed them in the courthouse hallway, as Carson claims.
Beeson argued that Jacobson is an experienced prosecution investigator who should have known it would be inappropriate to speak to an alternate juror before the trial had concluded. He also said asking about the suspected photographing could have been perceived by the jurors as someone in the courthouse hallway trying to intimidate them by taking their pictures.
The court’s attorney told McFadden that Jacobson’s questioning was related to the trial, was interfering with the jury process and could have harmed the integrity of the verdict.
Carson argued that the inquiry about the photo incident should have been conducted by the court through the bailiff, but that Harris and Jacobson never told the court about the allegation. “Officers of the court know you don’t do it,” Carson said about approaching a juror before the trial ends.