Mad River Union
EUREKA – Juan Joseph Ferrer’s lawyer will argue that his client acted strictly in self-defense against homophobic slurs and physical assault when he fatally stabbed an unarmed Arcata chef in 2013.
“Mr. Ferrer’s sexual orientation was the precipitating factor” in the street corner confrontation that cost the life of Douglas Anderson-Jordet, 50, of Arcata, said Conflict Counsel Marek I. Reavis at the start of pre-trial proceedings last week in Humboldt County Superior Court.
The long-awaited trial, dogged by a convoluted history, is slated to begin the week of April 20, pending jury selection. Prospective jurors are being interviewed and told the trial will wrap up on or about May 29.
Ferrer, 36, “does identify as a bisexual and he is a member of Arcata’s LGBT community,” Reavis told the court. “That’s how this [Anderson-Jordet] tirade all started. Mr. Ferrer was accosted for his visual appearance” and his attire, which Reavis described in an interview as mostly black “gutter punk” or “Goth punk” in style.
LGBT, or LGBTQIA, is the widely used acronym for diverse sexual orientations: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (an umbrella term), intersex, asexual and ally.
Anderson-Jordet, a chef at Abruzzi Arcata, died from a single stab wound to the heart when he collapsed in the early morning hours near Wildberries Marketplace on Nov. 25, 2013 – three days before Thanksgiving. He had walked about a block uphill from where the lethal clash took place, at the corner of 11th and H streets adjoining Vintage Avenger.
Anderson-Jordet was unarmed, but his blood alcohol level was reported to be 0.23, close to three times the legal driving limit.
Neither Ferrer nor his two companions informed the authorities about the apparently random skirmish that turned violent in the otherwise empty streets.
Anderson-Jordet is believed to have touched off a shouting match when he spontaneously yelled homophobic expletives at Ferrer and his friends as they returned home after spending the evening together in downtown Arcata. The parties were strangers to one another and the encounter is believed to have ignited with an exchange of to-and-fro F-bombs.
Taken completely by surprise, “Mr. Ferrer responded entirely in self-defense; he did not actively or affirmatively pursue [Mr. Anderson-Jordet] ,” Reavis told a reporter.
The topic of Ferrer’s sexual orientation arose when Reavis and Deputy District Attorney Roger C. Rees, prosecutor in the case, sparred last week over the wording of the extensive questionnaire prepared by the court to screen prospective jurors. Rees said Ferrer’s name should be omitted in soliciting juror attitudes about homosexuality. Jurors need only be questioned in general terms, not in connection with Ferrer himself, Rees added.
Reavis objected, alleging that Anderson-Jordet spewed “angry, homophobic, hateful comments” at Ferrer and his two companions, provoking the deadly confrontation.
Anderson-Jordet displayed “a virulent attitude that courses through the nation’s culture still,” Reavis argued. Consistent with that, jurors should be informed up front about Ferrer’s sexual orientation, he said.
The defense attorney elaborated in an interview just outside the courtroom. “This trial is itself an LGBT issue,” he asserted. “That wouldn’t surprise anyone over the last 10 years or so who has watched the progress of the gay rights movement nationally, and is aware of just how virulent the backlash is” from Tea Party conservatives and evangelical Christians, some of whom condemn homosexuality and homosexual relationships as intrinsically evil, either as a mortal or venial sin against God, nature and Biblical prescriptions.
“LGBT is a cultural shift and a generational shift and yet there remain a lot of people who still harbor a knee-jerk, reactionary impulse about people’s sexuality,” Reavis asserted. “I don’t think anybody within the gay community would be unaware of that backlash; and when, out of the blue, in the middle of the night, they [Ferrer and his friends] were accosted by someone yelling the vile, homophobic terms the decedent used, it gave rise to the fright and fear that Mr. Ferrer felt.”
The irreducible fact of the case, Reavis contends, is that Ferrer “certainly was the potential victim of a hate crime.”
Asked to comment, Rees declined to respond to Reavis’s theory of the trial’s larger meaning amid the national turmoil over hate crimes and sexual bigotry. The prosecutor said he will present the facts of the case “and our theory of the events that occurred. I won’t speculate on what the defense will be.”
Asked if he anticipated having to rebut an LGBT defense with national overtones, Rees refused to be drawn. “We’re anticipating everything and we’re anticipating nothing, because we’re not going to speculate as to what defense Mr. Ferrer will put on. There’s been lots of discussion of the case, but we’ll wait to see what happens in the courtroom and respond to what actually happens” there.
But Rees did serve notice in the courtroom that because Reavis introduced the subject of Anderson-Jordet’s character as an alleged hatemonger and homophobe, the state is free to address Ferrer’s character and deportment in kind.
Almost certainly, therefore, jurors will hear testimony about the behavior and personalities of both the victim and the perpetrator.
After some deliberation about the wording of the questionnaire, Rees, Reavis and Superior Court Judge John T. Feeney agreed that candidate jurors will be informed, “Mr. Ferrer is a member of the LGBT community” and asked, “Will this fact influence your opinion of the defendant or the determination of the facts in this case?”
At another point in the pre-trial discussions, state and defense disagreed about the redactions to be made to two separate video and audio interviews that Arcata Police detectives recorded when they spoke with Ferrer after the killing. The first recording was made at police headquarters the morning of the stabbing, the second the next day at St. Joseph’s Hospital, where Ferrer was being treated for chronic sleep apnea, a disorder that hinders breathing.
Adhering to the customary defense tactic of casting doubt on the standard of police work, Reavis argued for extensive redactions on grounds that APD Detectives Chris Ortega and Ron Sligh sought to elicit a confession rather than information.
“They made more statements than they asked questions,” according to Reavis, based on premature conclusions he believes the detectives reached in the prior interviews with Ferrer’s companions: Sophie Buttercup Rocheleau, 25, and Nicholas Stoiber, 29, Ferrer’s former co-defendants, both of Arcata. They each pleaded guilty last November to a reduced charge of misdemeanor battery and were sentenced to three years’ probation. They stood accused of striking Anderson-Jordet and piling on while Ferrer produced a knife, which was never found.
Detectives Ortega and Sligh tried to prompt Ferrer to confess in line with Rocheleau’s and Stoiber’s statements instead of securing Ferrer’s independent account, Reavis argued. He said this confused Ferrer, who freely admitted in the second, audio interview at the hospital that he lied in the first meeting. He acknowledged his falsehoods to police at the hospital and explained why he made them, according to Reavis.
The detectives’ remarks “were peppered with their theories of the case” and those statements “were conclusory not interrogatory,” Reavis added, indicating he will cross examine the officers pointedly when they are called to testify.
Eventually a compromise emerged on the redactions. Judge Feeney reviewed the transcripts overnight, and a portion was redacted the next morning in which ambient noise at the hospital made understanding the audio tape difficult.
Also stricken were remarks, evidently by the detectives, suggesting a past intimate relationship between Ferrer and Rocheleau, which Reavis said would be “highly prejudicial” to his client if it were disclosed to jurors.
Under subpoena, three defense witnesses from Arcata were seated for a few minutes in the gallery last week to confirm they will appear at trial.
According to the defense, Sarah Brody overheard at least part of the verbal confrontation beneath her H Street apartment window. Virginia Jimenez was Anderson-Jordet’s ex-girlfriend at the time of his death and spent several hours with him the afternoon and early evening of the day before he was killed. Rocheleau also will be called to testify.
There was no indication last week whether Stoiber, Ferrer’s other companion, will testify or whether the jury will hear from Cher Southard, the manager of the Crew House Arcata where Jimenez and Anderson-Jordet, no longer intimates, resided in separate quarters.
In total, close to 50 witnesses are to be called in a murder case with a tortuous history that at one point became a political football in the election campaign for a new Humboldt County district attorney.
Rival candidates charged that an initial no contest plea in February 2014 was too lenient, spurring an outcry from Anderson-Jordet’s family, restaurant colleagues and friends that the plea amounted to a miscarriage of justice. Effectively, Ferrer would have served two years in jail, which critics spurned as a travesty in view of the unarmed victim’s violent death.
Ferrer, who had no criminal record, was charged initially with murder but admitted to aggravated involuntary manslaughter. Then-Deputy District Attorney Elan Firpo, who was one of the DA candidates, agreed to the reduced charge on grounds that Ferrer had not necessarily intended to kill Anderson-Jordet, even though Ferrer had been uncooperative with the investigation. Firpo said he fled town, initially denied the crime and failed to produce the knife he used to stab Anderson-Jordet.
Presumably one of the things the prosecution will zero in on at trial is what Firpo called Ferrer’s “unhelpfulness.”
“Stoiber and Rocheleau were pretty straightforward,” Firpo said of their statements to investigators. “Mr. Ferrer never was.”
Last April, amid the mounting political fallout from the DA election, Superior Court Judge Joyce D. Hinrichs annulled the pleas and recused herself from the case.
That failed to quicken matters. Deliberations dragged on haltingly through last summer and fall, owing mostly to a protracted state and defense dispute over whether to try the three defendants separately or collectively after the initial pleas were thrown out.
That disagreement became moot toward year’s end, however, when Stoiber and Rocheleau entered guilty pleas to misdemeanor battery and were sentenced to three years’ probation, plus court-ordered drug and alcohol reviews.
So now Ferrer stands alone in the dock charged with murder instead of aggravated involuntary manslaughter. Although Rees declined to reveal how he will frame the prosecution, he can certainly underscore that the victim, Anderson-Jordet, was unarmed and essentially hapless if not harmless in his allegedly drunken state.
Firpo’s remarks and police statements are also pointers for how Rees might proceed and what the defense will have to contest.
“It was very unfortunate that Mr. Ferrer was carrying a knife,” Firpo said when she first announced the reduced charge in early 2014.“This should have been no more than a verbal kerfuffle that everyone walked away from.”
Arcata Police Chief Tom Chapman said much the same thing. “You don’t whip out a knife in a fist fight,” he admonished. “Nothing good is going to come of that. Walk away.”
But Reavis cites California’s “stand-your-ground” law, which was mentioned briefly in court last week. He claims his client had no time to walk away in the 30 to 60 seconds that elapsed during the fatal encounter.
“Basically the law says that even if a person has the opportunity to retreat from an attacker, he doesn’t have to,” Reavis explained in an interview. “He or she can retreat if it appears safe to withdraw, but the law allows the victim to stand his ground. In this instance, there was no opportunity for Mr. Ferrer to retreat because the encounter happened in seconds, resulting in a single stab wound.”
Reavis used a porcupine metaphor to characterize his client’s version of what happened. “When threatened, a porcupine reflexively raises its quills as a warning signal to a would-be predator. In this case, the assailant [Anderson-Jordet] failed to heed the warning, disregarded it and fell onto the knife that Mr. Ferrer wielded. Anderson-Jordet threw a punch at the left side of Mr. Ferrer’s head, a wild haymaker blow, a wild swing, that didn’t inflict much injury but alarmed the three. This angry drunk struck the blow even as he lost his balance and fell onto Mr. Ferrer, who had already brandished a knife to ward off the assault. It was tragically accidental, a terrible misfortune for both individuals and for their families and loved ones.”