Tuesday, October 11, 2016
[San Joaquin County] Judge won’t compel grand juror to testify
STOCKTON — A judge declined Monday morning to release a civil grand juror to testify on behalf of City Council candidate Sam Fant, who is facing felony election fraud and conspiracy charges.
Fant and attorney Yolanda Huang say that testimony by the 2014-15 grand juror, identified in a court document as Roslyn Watkins, would show that racial bias is propelling the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s case against Fant.
He and his attorney want the D.A.’s Office removed from the case. They cite a 2014-15 civil grand jury report that criticized Fant as part of their reason for pursuing the D.A.’s removal.
But after listening to the arguments, Judge Bob McNatt ruled Monday morning that without any indication from Watkins herself that she is prepared to go public on Fant’s behalf, he is unwilling to lift the confidentiality she is promised by the state for her service on the civil grand jury.
“No reliable testimony or declaration has been presented that the grand juror named has any desire to participate in this,” McNatt said at the end of a 40-minute hearing.
“It, to me, seems fairly apparent that if she had an interest in doing this, a simple declaration to the effect that she believes that racism played some part in this and seeks to be released from her oath of confidentiality would have been sufficient. We don’t have that.”
McNatt said preserving grand jurors’ confidentiality is critical to the integrity of the grand jury process.
“Although some legal scholars refer to the grand jury as a leftover remnant from the star chambers of the Middle Ages, the fact is they are still with us,” McNatt said. “The secrecy attached to their proceedings has endured for centuries.”
The 28-year-old Fant, who is black, said in a Sept. 7 court declaration that he spoke on Sept. 3 to Watkins, whom he identifies as “one of the only African-American members on the civil grand jury.”
In that Sept. 3 conversation, Fant says that Watkins told him she “would testify to matters that are related to or pertain to the issues I am raising in my motion to recuse the San Joaquin County district attorney’s office.”
In making her case Monday morning, Huang said, “If this court then says, ‘We’re not going to let this out,’ then I think that this is a statement to the African-American community in San Joaquin County that there’s not going to be the transparency available for the court that many people in the African-American community feel is a highly biased and racist report.”
Deputy District Attorney Robert Himelblau provided a laundry list of arguments against Huang’s motion and asked, sharply, why Huang and Fant have not in the past month produced any documentation directly from Watkins that shows her willingness to forego her confidentiality.
“Not even an email, a postcard, Skype, Facetime, a text,” Himelblau said. “What about a Facebook post? We have nothing to indicate that this woman wants to cooperate with the defendant’s case. Until that time we can’t even start to seriously look at this issue.”
Huang responded that racism is a “front and center social issue,” and added, “I understand that Mr. Himelblau doesn’t believe that the report is racist. But that’s clearly not the issue, the feeling and the sentiments of people in the black community.”
Huang says Assistant District Attorney Scott Fichtner assisted in the production of the 2014-15 grand jury report, which criticized Fant amid a controversy over race in Manteca Unified, where Fant serves on the school board.
Fant says Fichtner, who is white, has waged “a vendetta” against him for years. The District Attorney’s Office has said the allegations of racial bias and a vendetta are false.
In April, the District Attorney’s Office charged Fant with a felony for election fraud for allegedly providing false addresses to two school board candidates in 2014.
Ashley Drain and Alexander Bronson won their elections but later resigned. As with Fant, the D.A.’s Office charged Drain and Bronson with election fraud. Bronson’s case has been resolved. Drain still faces charges and has a court appearance scheduled Thursday.
Judge Seth Hoyt rejected a separate motion by Huang to remove the District Attorney’s Office from Fant’s case last week. Fant is running Nov. 8 against Jesús Andrade for south Stockton’s District 6 seat on the City Council. His next court date is for his preliminary hearing Oct. 13.
October 3, 2016
By Roger Phillips