(UPDATED at 8:27 a.m. April 4 with edits, additional information and photos.)
Mad River Union
EUREKA – Superior Court Judge Joyce Hinrichs has tossed out plea bargains made between the District Attorney’s Office and the suspects in the stabbing death of an Arcata man, stating that the deals would “erode public confidence in our judicial process.”
Hinrich’s made the decision late Thursday afternoon, April 3 in a courtroom filled with friends and family of the victim, Douglas Anderson-Jordet, who was stabbed and died of his injuries on Nov. 25 in Arcata. Also in attendance were friends and family of the three suspects, along with representatives of most of the county’s media outlets. The courtroom was packed, with six bailiffs closely watching the proceedings and guiding people in and out of the room.
Hinrichs said she would take the blame for giving tentative approval to the plea deals last month. She said at the time, she hadn’t heard objections to the deals from the victim’s family. It wasn’t until after tentative approval of the plea deals last month that the family became publicly vocal about what they perceive as light sentences for the suspects.
“I didn’t ask enough questions,” said Hinrichs, who added that she should have paid closer attention to the state’s Victims Bill of Rights. "Hindsight is 20/20." Hinrichs said that she doesn't believe that "justice would be served" by allowing the plea deals to stand.
She said she would disqualify herself from the case in the future, although she seemed to hesitate announcing this,
saying she should have consulted her colleagues about this issue beforehand.
With the pleas tossed, it is now up to the District Attorney’s Office to pursue the next course of action, which could involve going to trial or hammering out new plea deals. This will allow the process to begin anew, with opportunities for more evidence to be brought to light.
“It may be the exact same resolution,” Hinrichs said.
The tossed deals
On Feb. 13, Juan Joseph Ferrer, 35, admitted to aggravated involuntary manslaughter. Though initially charged with murder, the charge was reduced because he didn’t necessarily intend to kill Anderson-Jordet, said Deputy District Attorney Elan Firpo in February.
Firpo, a candidate for District Attorney in the upcoming election, has since been removed from the case at her own request, with her boss, DA Paul Gallegos, taking over the case. Gallegos is not seeking reelection.
The three suspects – Ferrer, Nicholas Benjamin Stoiber and Sophie Buttercup Rocheleau – had a chance encounter with the victim the evening of Nov. 25, 2013 at the corner of 12th and H streets in Arcata. Although accounts of the clash vary, it's known that words were exchanged. A short scuffle ensued. And, at one point, Ferrer drew a knife and the victim was stabbed.
Stoiber, 28, pleaded no contest to assault with force likely to cause bodily injury without a weapon. He is free on his own recognizance, and would have received felony probation under the plea deal,
Rocheleau, 24, who had initially faced that same charge, pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of misdemeanor battery. She is also free, and would have received probation under the plea deal.
Ferrer, who had no criminal record, could have escaped the aggravation penalty had he cooperated with authorities. That could have led to a possible sentence of two years. Someone with a criminal record might have been eligible for a two-year sentence, and a person who had
committed similar acts could get four years.
Firpo said in a previous interview that Ferrer’s response to the situation was unhelpful. He left town immediately afterward, initially denied the crime and refused to produce the knife used to kill Anderson-Jordet. “I interpreted that as aggravated,” Firpo said.
Ferrer had stipulated to a four-year sentence with 50 percent credit and three years probation, meaning he would serve two years. Because of realignment, he would have spent that time in the Humboldt County Jail.
Now, all those plea deals are tossed and the original charges stand.
Objections from suspects’ attorneys, Gallegos
At today’s hearing, Hinrichs explained how she arrived at her decision, citing the various briefs and letters she had read. She then explained the reasons for her decision, which she said would be tentative until she had a chance to hear from the DA and the defense attorneys at the hearing. This left the door open for the attorneys to convince her to change her decision, but she was unpersuaded.
Gallegos, representing the People, had the first opportunity to respond, but he wasn’t present in the room. There was a short delay before Gallegos arrived. When he finally did, one of his assistants briefly whispered in his ear, presumably telling him what he had missed.
Gallegos, having missed the judge’s explanation of her decision, seemed somewhat confused by her rationale, which he hadn’t heard in its entirety. He said he would respect whatever decision to court made and said he thought that, in the end, justice would prevail.
"The true evidence will come out sooner or later," Gallegos said.
Defense attorney Marek Reavis, representing Ferrer, said he was disappointed in the judge’s decision.
The death of Anderson-Jordet “is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy for everybody associated with this case,” Reavis said.
However, the plea deal came about after a careful and deliberate review of the evidence by the DA and the defense, he said.
Reavis recounted some of the aspects of the confrontation which took place the night Anderson-Jordet died. The victim was walking home and came across the suspects. They didn’t know each other. A short confrontation ensued.
Words were exchanged. A scuffle broke out.
“Mr. Ferrer was frightened, so frightened that he withdrew a knife he had on him,” Reavis told the court.
Ferrer had no intention of killing Anderson-Jordet, he said. “Their entire history with each other consisted of a single minute of time,” Reavis said.
Reavis described his client as a gentleman, a vegan, a Buddhist and a member of the LGBT community.
Reavis lashed out at DA candidate Arnie Klein, who was in court representing the family of the victim. Reavis
called his behavior “despicable” and said it was about the candidate’s “aggrandizement.”
Attorneys for Stoiber and Rocheleau argued that the facts presented haven’t changed for their two clients.
"I believe there are only on set of facts that relate to Ms. Rocheleau," said her attorney, Benjamin Okin.
Stoiber's attorney, Jennifer Dixon, made the same argument. "There's no controversy of fact," she said about her client, who she described as taking responsibility for his conduct.
It was suggested that their plea deals should stand, but Hinrichs threw out the whole batch of pleas.
After Hinrichs announced that her decision was final, she attempted to set a time for a new preliminary hearing. Gallegos asked for time to confer with the victim’s family. He stepped out in the hallway with them for several minutes, then returned.
After discussions with the other attorneys, a preliminary hearing was set for May 28.
DA Candidate Klein, representing the victim’s family, didn’t say anything during the hearing. He was wheelchair-bound for a time and complained of a bacterial blood infection.
Klein was pretty much muzzled from near the beginning of the hearing, when Judge Hinrichs declared that unless she changed her mind about her tentative decision to toss out the plea deals, Klein would not be allowed to address the court.
At one point Klein submitted a legal brief and handed out a few copies to media representatives in attendance inside the courtroom. The judge then ordered bailiffs to take the copies back from the reporters and seal the court records.
After the decision, Klein's campaign posted the following on his Facebook page: "Justice can be slowed but it cannot be stopped -- The plea bargain was rejected! Judge Joyce Hinrichs rejected the ludicrous plea bargains offered to those who stand accused of murdering Douglas Anderson-Jordet, Doug's family was present and Arnie presented an impact statement for them, asking the judge to reject the deal. Now all the facts of the case can be heard."
Ferrer, the only suspect in custody, attended the hearing in an orange Humboldt County Correctional Facility jumpsuit. He sat hunched over with his head bowed during much of the hearing. Stoiber was well-groomed, wearing a black blazer and sitting upright and poised during the hearing, occasionally glancing at the other attorneys. Rocheleau was also dressed in black, her hair streaked with purple dye. She sat staring forward during the hearing. All three suspects briefly chatted with their separate attorneys during Gallegos’ absence.
None of the suspects said anything aloud in court, other than to agree to postpone the time required to hold their preliminary hearings.