Convergence

In prior accounts, Judge Carlton encountered Three Strikes, recidivism, contentious civil trials, the death penalty, and legal ethics. Now he confronts a juvenile law case without any winners in another attempt to educate about the judicial system.

In Department 47 Judge Raymond Carlton looked at the sentencing report, reflected over his trial notes, and realized a disastrous convergence of time, space, and motion transformed lives in a way that the justice system could never repair. Four lives intersected, and one ended up in front of Judge Carlton six months later with dreams shattered.

Six months before, at a Pizza Hut, Rashad Johnson, a short, slight seventeen-year-old, wiped his wire-rimmed glasses and studied a freshly baked pepperoni pizza as he sliced it into equal triangular pieces for a customer. In his mind, he calculated that sine divided by the cosine equaled the tangent or the width of the pizza, sixteen inches.  Numbers always came easy to him and trigonometric functions were no exception. His mind quickly reassembled numbers and shapes into interconnected, harmonious sequences for their resolution. Rashad was the hope of the Johnson family, consisting of a single mother and five brothers and sisters, Rashad being the oldest, all fortunate to have Section 8 housing in Antioch. Seemingly college-bound, a strong candidate for two scholarships, a near perfect SAT math score, Rashad worked after school to help put food on the table for his family. That Saturday, he cashed his small paycheck and gave most of the money to his mother.  Saturday night was a night to close out a week of late night studying, tutoring a younger brother, and rolling out pizza dough, by going to a party across town in Antioch. A different pizza would alter his life.

Nineteen-year-old Antoine Carvell pulled $65 from his wallet, gave it to a Project Trojan gang member, and received a loaded .38 special in return. Recent gang trouble caused Antoine to want to arm himself for protection. He told a friend of Rashad’s about Turner Smith’s open door party. Carvell then headed to join the Saturday night party, secreting the revolver under his shirt.

Twenty-two-year-old Turner Smith turned up the rap music of T.I., 50 Cent, and Dr. Dre, chilled some cases of Tecate beer, and got ready for the party at his recently rented condo on H Street. Like a tempting siren call, his twitter invitation to friends was soon circulated to a wide range of people looking for some action on a warm Saturday night, for a convergence of catastrophic consequences.

In downtown Antioch, Hector Ramirez stoked the oak wood in the brick oven of his small pizza shop with his young cousin Jaime, who helped deliver pizzas in an old Corolla. Hector emigrated legally from Guatemala fourteen years before, worked doggedly as a dishwasher in a restaurant, then as an after-hours janitor for fast food stores, a pizza maker and delivery person. Finally, trying to achieve his American dream, he obtained an SBA loan with the help of the Antioch Redevelopment Agency, and proudly opened his own pizza shop, “Hector’s,” where he worked fifteen hours a day building up his business. Recently married to Selena, he had two young children to support. His business had just begun to thrive through word of mouth about his unique oven-fired crust and south of the border spices.

By 11:30 p.m. at Smith’s, the beer was gone, the snacks devoured, and the hangers-on were left with little money after buying pot and making beer runs to the local Seven Eleven. A shrill voice in the living room called out he was hungry for a midnight snack, and several others echoed a similar craving, but no one had the money for extra-large pizzas. Turner Smith remembered Hector’s, and so half sober, called for a delivery. Hector could hear the rap music and a chaotic background of loud voices yelling at one another as he wrote down the order and address. He knew the H Street address was in a rough part of town. At the other end, Turner Smith devised a plan to take care of the pizza: rip off the delivery boy when he arrived and send him on his way.

Hector had an uneasy premonition something was amiss. He told Jaime he would accompany him on the delivery. They baked two extra-large pizzas, cleaned up the shop, closed for the night, and headed toward the H Street address. Jaime did not want Hector to go with him, telling him to go home to his family. But because of a gut feeling, Hector insisted on going along and brought a baseball bat for protection in case of trouble.

Carvell, Smith, Rashad Johnson, and others argued about how they would handle the delivery. Rashad had never smoked so much marijuana, was light headed, and wanted no part of the scheme.  But Carvell insisted that Rashad “be the man,” and they would help. Others chanted, “Rashad. Rashad.” Rashad quickly computed the numbers:  two extra-large pizzas at $18 each, with an 8.75 per cent tax, and a 10 percent tip for delivery totaled $43.15, but no one had $43.15. Collectively they only had $27.45. Rashad calculated a 36.3 per cent shortfall.

So Rashad, Smith, Carvell, and Hector Ramirez all converged at 12:10 am on H Street. As the Corolla pulled up in front of the condo, Carvell forced the .38 special into Rashad’s palm at the open front door. Jaime started to walk up the steps with the Pizzas.  Hector waited a short distance behind in the shadows with the baseball bat. Some of the partygoers, including Turner Smith, shoved Rashad, with the gun in his hand, onto the front porch and screamed, “Give us the fuckin pizzas.” Jaime backed off, as Hector waving the bat, came around him and confronted Rashad.  Rashad felt someone push him forward and yell, “Shoot him!” Everyone and everything converged in one fatal, surreal moment. Somehow the gun fired once. Hector tumbled to the pavement, bleeding profusely from his stomach with a mortal bullet wound. Rashad cried out, dropped the gun, and ran down the street, as if in slow motion mode from a terrifying graveyard. He made it back to his house where his mother had been waiting up for him. He said nothing about what transpired.

Jaime desperately called 911 and tried to stop the abdominal aorta bleeding until an ambulance arrived. A pool of blood covered the sidewalk and two boxes of pizza. The crowd at the house scattered at the gunshot, leaving Turner Smith to answer questions about what happened at his condo. The gun was nowhere to be found.  Smith would not snitch, but begrudgingly mentioned the names of a few of the partygoers, well known to the Antioch police.  Detectives contacted them and learned in vague bits and pieces about a “Rashad” and what happened. Like an unraveling spool, one interrogation led to another. Jaime was able to describe the shooter, a youngish, 5 foot, 7 inch, thin, black teenager, wearing glasses.

The follow up Antioch police work was swift. A scared Rashad was located, questioned, and arrested the next day at his home, and transferred to the juvenile detention facility in Martinez. Hector Ramirez’ body was transferred to the county morgue for an autopsy, then to a funeral home, and Holy Rosary Church for a burial Mass. His widow Selena was inconsolable.

Because Welfare and Institutions Code Section 707 allows a prosecutor to try a 17-year-old minor in adult court with adult sentences when the crime is murder, Rashad Johnson appeared in Department 47 before Judge Raymond Carlton for a jury trial.  The gifted student now faced countless years in state prison instead of a four-year university education.

Veteran public defender Joyce Sawyer was at her best in convincing the jury of eight women and four men to reduce the crime to voluntary manslaughter rather than a 25 year-to-life first degree murder conviction that the prosecuting attorney urged.  Although the prosecution obtained an appeal-proof conviction for voluntary manslaughter and attempted robbery, there were no winners, no moral victory to trumpet.

So Judge Carlton reviewed the Probation Officer’s sentencing report recommendations, saw hopes dashed, promises unfulfilled, and lives changed by a brief, deadly convergence. The sentencing hearing was gut wrenching for the judge.

Mrs. Johnson did not understand state prison was legislatively mandated for the commission of the crime with the use of a gun.  With Rashad’s four brothers and sisters in court, their pastor from the Baptist church, and several of Rashad’s AP math teachers, she pleaded for some form of probation under strict supervision to allow Rashad to make use of his talents and provide for his family.  She explained he was remorseful, repentant, and resolute to make amends. Rashad’s minister begged for mercy and compassion.

Rashad removed his glasses and tearfully asked for forgiveness, apologized, and looked for an immediate chance to make something of himself, but the sentencing law did not allow it.

The prosecutor called Hector’s widow Selena who explained haltingly through an interpreter how Hector’s death forever affected the family.  Hector was their sole support, their love, their anchor. Tears streaming, she tried to explain she did not know how to run a pizza business, her education was less than high school, and she had two little children to raise by herself. The California Victim’s Assistance Compensation program paid a maximum of $63,000, not nearly enough for their loans and modest home, and other daily expenses. They had no savings or insurance for the losses and had just started to turn their lives around when Hector was killed. In Spanish she sobbed, “Dios mio, que voy a hacer?”  “My God, what am I going to do?”  She begged for help from a helpless court that could only sentence her husband’s assailant and do little more.

Mrs. Johnson tried to reach out to Selena as she returned to the public seating, but was rebuffed. The courtroom felt as if Lady Justice had tightened her blindfold so tautly that any sense of compassion was blacked out.

After a few words explaining the process, Judge Carlton imposed the sentence required by the penal code and the circumstances of the case: the midterm of six years, finding aggravating and mitigating circumstances roughly offsetting to avoid a higher term, and added an enhancement of four years for use of a gun, as required by the law then in effect, for an aggregate term of ten years in state prison. The sentence for attempted robbery was to be served concurrently. Credit for time served and state prison credits, fractionalized for good behavior, were factored in as the clerk added everything together in the recorded judgment.

As defendant Rashad Johnson listened, his keen mind was able to calculate the sentence that determined his uncertain future faster than anyone else in the courtroom. Judge Carlton, emotionally spent, watched the transportation deputies lead the defendant out, head down, in handcuffs that barely restrained his thin wrists.  He realized he could not undo what was done.


Note: Read more stories by Justice James Marchiano (ret.) in Stories from the Bray Building.


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  1. Theresa Hurley says:

    Wow – what a sad and powerful story. Thank you Justice Marchiano.
    Theresa