EUREKA – When Deputy District Attorney Brie Bennett delivered her closing argument in the failed sexual assault prosecution in mid-June of former Humboldt County Sheriff Sgt. Jason Scott Daniels, she said the case was only as strong as the evidence she was allowed to introduce.
What the five-woman, seven-man jury did not learn was that investigators had collected evidence of drug and sex paraphernalia in the trunk of Daniels’ patrol car; hundreds of salacious and racist text messages and photographic images confiscated from his cell phone, and documentation of the ex-sergeant’s adulterous affair with a fellow officer during his tenure with the Sheriff’s Office.
On at least one occasion, he solicited oral sex from her on his cell phone. On another, they had intercourse while he was on duty, according to her statement in the barred documentation archived in the case file. It was opened to the public in the courthouse records office following Daniels’ acquittal on June 16 (Mad River Union, June 22, p. A1).
The defense succeeded in blocking the evidence in question on grounds that it was “irrelevant and unduly prejudicial” to the three sexual assault charges against Daniels, filed separately by two Jane Does.
One male juror said after the trial that the lack of evidence led to the acquittal, despite a feeling that the case had merit.
In his instructions to the jury, Judge Timothy P. Cissna said, “Conviction of a sexual assault crime may be based on the testimony of a complaining witness alone,” meaning the Jane Does.
But in exonerating Daniels, the jury concluded that the state’s case failed to meet the mandatory standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
The evidence withheld from the jury and since made public reveals that detectives found a glass methamphetamine pipe and an empty condom box in Daniels’ patrol vehicle after he was arrested. Forensic analysis verified that the pipe contained “a usable amount of meth” and Daniels’ DNA.
Prosecutor Bennett argued that the physical objects and the test results proved that “an officer of the law displayed criminal behavior by carrying [an] illegal substance and [an] illegal instrument for consuming that substance at the scene of a crime,” the alleged sexual assault of Jane Doe 1 in 2013.
The condom box found with the pipe constituted evidence of Daniels’ alleged sexual activities while on duty, Bennett argued further. In effect, his official patrol car was “a mobile crime scene.”
That was the vehicle Daniels was driving when he allegedly digitally penetrated the vagina of Jane Doe 1 during a routine stop and pat down on Aug. 29, 2013 on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 101, adjoining Jacobs Avenue just north of Eureka, at 4:27 a.m.
Bennett contended that if the 12 jurors learned of the seized condom box, it could “reasonably infer” that Daniels used the prophylactics while on duty. That demonstrated his “motive, opportunity, intent, preparation and plan” for the alleged sexual assault.
In rebuttal, defense counsel said the evidentiary items found in the trunk failed to prove or disprove any facts connected with the charges that Daniels penetrated Jane Doe 1’s vagina with two fingers.
“There is no accusation that defendant Daniels engaged in any sort of sexual activity that involved the use of a condom. Nor is [he] charged with any crime related to the use of controlled substances or affiliated paraphernalia,” the defense said.
If the jury learns of the evidence, “It is likely to instill an undue emotional bias against defendant Daniels” and lead to a decision based on “extraneous factors,” his lawyers argued.
They added that knowledge of the condom box might lead to the false conclusion that the ex-deputy “engages in some sort of uncharged sexual deviancy.”
The defense also won its motion to block hundreds of text messages bearing sexual and racist content that Daniels sent and received. The defense team acknowledged that the messages contained “vulgar and offensive language,” but said their introduction in court would deny the former sergeant a fair trial if they were ruled admissible.
The search of his cell phone recovered nearly 9,780 text messages. Of those, according to public court records, 274 contained “sexually inappropriate” vocabulary, which the defense conceded: “Whore, douche, boner, sex, naked, vag, pubic, rape, sperm, penis, dick, blow, blowjob, cunt, anal, cum, balls, nut, jizz, cock, boobies, jerkin it, pussy, slut, tit, poon and suck.”
Other offensive and degenerate terms, including homophobic, sexist and racist epithets, were “fag, bitch, midget, dot head, nigger, fuck, gay and ass.”
The state also sought to introduce photographs and other illustrations found on the ex-sergeant’s cell phone, some of them explicitly pornographic or racist, others that prosecutor Bennett considered “sexually suggestive.”
Again, the defense argued successfully that this material established no nexus to the crimes charged. “Using vulgar language, sexual or not, does not establish a ‘sexual offense.’ Nor does possessing lewd photographs.”
Overall, the former deputy’s lawyers said, “These texts are plainly banter (admittedly off-color) between Mr. Daniels, his friends and co-workers. The texts do not link Mr. Daniels to the alleged assaults, serve as commentary regarding the assaults, nor in any way recognize the alleged assaults.”
As their coup de grâce, defense attorneys declared, “The People’s attempt to introduce this evidence is the epitome of taking something out of context.”
Shortly before the trial began, detectives learned of an approximately eight-year extramarital affair, from 2005 to 2013, between Daniels and a former Sheriff’s Office dispatcher who now works at two other local police departments.
On Aug. 9, 2013, almost three weeks before the alleged assault on Jane Doe 1 and months after the alleged assault of Jane Doe 2 in March of that year, Daniels reportedly sent a text to his paramour stating, “I need a blow job [oral sex].”
Deposed, she told investigators that the sexual relationship was entirely consensual and “that they normally had sexual encounters while Mr. Daniels was off-duty,” with one exception. She “never claimed that Mr. Daniels forced any sexual encounters on her, nor had he ever sexually assaulted her,” investigators who interviewed her reported.
Prosecutor Bennett wanted to inform the jury of the prolonged affair and call the woman to testify. The paramour admitted during the police interview in early June that she and Daniels exchanged “text messages and pictures that were sexual in nature. She recalled one time that he brought his patrol car to her house and had sex while he was on duty. She also stated that they did not use a condom when they had sex.”
Bennett characterized these statements as probative, reaching to Daniels’ motive, opportunity and intent in connection with his alleged attempt to sexually ingratiate himself with Jane Doe 1 during their encounter, when she told him she was a prostitute with a rap sheet.
The defense parried that a consensual sexual relationship is not proof of criminal misconduct and it is certainly not a sexual offense in its own right.
“A criminal defendant’s lawful, consensual sexual history, particularly with a person who is not identified as a victim, is not evidence of a sexual assault.”
Ultimately the case boiled down to the classic “she said, he said” dispute.
Judge Cissna’s instruction to the jury on resolving this vexing conflict was, “You must decide what evidence to believe” without degenerating into a simple numbers game. Do not count the number of witnesses who agree or disagree on a given point, he said, and then accept the testimony of the preponderance of the witnesses.
“What is important is whether the testimony or any other evidence convinces you, not just the number of witnesses.”
On that basis Jane Does 1 and 2 lost despite Bennett’s firm belief that Daniels had engaged in an odious abuse of power.