Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sparks cops a plea; Rampone goes to trial

by Tom Nadeau

Dustin William Sparks entered a surprise plea of guilty to two lesser counts of voluntary manslaughter in Yuba County Superior Court Friday in exchange for the prosecution dropping two first degree murder charges.

Under the terms of the negotiated plea in People v. Sparks the defendant faces up to 13 years in state prison. Visiting Judge R.M. Smith postponed Sparks sentencing until Jan. 3, 2011.

This bizarre move by Sparks came even as the defense awaited word from the US Supreme Court whether it will consider his writ of certiorari arguing he was wrongfully charged with first degree after the actual shooter in the 2005 double murder was convicted of two counts of voluntary manslaughter and was serving a term in state prison.

And it gets even more bizarre …

Sparks was facing charges of special circumstances first-degree murders of Christopher Hance and Scott Davis at an Olivehurst medical marijuana farm.

Another defendant, Angelic Louise Rampone is charged with the same crimes from the same incident. Her trial is set to start this week, with attorney Roberto Marquez defending.

As investigators paint the death scene, several people went to the fenced property where Hance had legal permission to grow the marijuana for his father who used the natural drug to ease his severe physical pain. The visitors’ intent was to steal marijuana.

However, when Hance and Davis accosted the intruders, suspect Michael Huggins, shot them dead.

As the Sparks defense recounts the incident, when the group arrived, only Huggins entered the property. Sparks remained outside having decided to bail out of the situation. Driver Rampone remained in the vehicle.

Both Sparks and Rampone fled the scene when the shooting started, according to earlier statements.

Killer Huggins was arrested and tried for special circumstances first-degree murder, but a Yuba County jury found him guilty only of voluntary manslaughter.

Jurors said they believed Huggins did not intend to rob or burglarize when he arrived at 3 a.m., armed with a loaded .45 caliber handgun. Huggins was still in prison at last report.

Meanwhile, the prosecution of Sparks and Rampone on special circumstances first-degree murder charges continued, with the defense arguing the two couldn’t be, because the actual killer had only been convicted of a much lesser crime. The original judge ruled Sparks and Rampone could not be.

Deputy District Attorney Michael A. Byrne then appealed Curry’s decision to California’s 3rd District Court of Appeal, and won.

Sparks defense attorney Justin Scott appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court, and lost again. Scott then decided to go for broke and appealed to the US Supreme Court.

Rampone and her attorney, Marquez, opted instead to abide by the state Supreme Court ruling and go to trial.

Sparks' sudden reversal of his plea now throws yet another twist in this strange legal mess.

The first question from trial watchers who have been following the case was, “Why?”

Defense sources later said Sparks was advised to sit tight, but maneuvering by Byrne had rattled the defendant’s nerve.

Apparently, as Notable Trials can best piece it together, a key prosecution witness (said to be Lavelle Hill), now refuses to testify, which would weaken the state's case.

In three days of backroom dealing, prosecutor took a hard stance.

Having previously rejected a defense offer to plead out, if the charges were reduced to voluntary manslaughter and the top prison sentence be held at 11 years, the prosecution now offered to cut the first-degree murder charges to voluntary manslaughter with 13 years minimum term – but with a tough guy stance this was the last and only time any such offer would be made. Period.

Sparks was faced with a dicey choice: Take Byrne’s offer or gamble that the USSC would take accept his writ and rule in his favor – with the uncertain chance it might not accept the writ and, if it did, still rule against him and sent it back down to the local court for prosecution.

In that case he would be looking at the possibility he would be facing a jury that could find him guilty and looking at a sentence of life in prison -- not 13 years.

Sparks has been in jail for some five years awaiting the courts to decide whether or not his argument that collateral estoppel applied to his case, or not. Collateral estoppel essentially says he could not be tried for first degree murder when someone else had already been found guilty of a lesser charge for the same crime.

Despite defense advice to sit tight, Sparks decided to take Byrne’s offer – a move that raises even more questions on different fronts.

Sparks entered the “vol-man” pleas with the proviso that, if the US Supreme Court should take on his writ of certiorari and rule in his favor, the decision Friday would be vacated and Sparks would be back where he started.

However, Sparks' plea move now raises the questions that, if the US Supreme Court Justices should here about his plea deal, would it toss out his writ figuring it was now made moot?

That was a possibility, defense attorney Scott said.

That would be a shame, since a High Court ruling in Sparks favor could have a salubrious effect on many other cases nationwide.

This tentative outcome poses some disadvantages for Rampone, whose case goes to trial this week. With Sparks’ decision in his pocket, Byrne can now place the prosecution’s full weight entirely on Rampone.

This happenstance driver with no significant prior criminal record before the ugly Olivehurst incident is looking at some serious time in state prison if convicted.

Meanwhile, in another complicating wrinkle, some experienced court watchers are wondering aloud why the issue of Penal Code section 1192.7 (c) was not raised with Judge Smith.

That section states:
1192.7(a) (1) It is the intent of the Legislature that district attorneys prosecute violent sex crimes under statutes that provide sentencing under a "one strike," "three strikes" or habitual sex offender statute instead of engaging in plea bargaining over those offenses.
(2) Plea bargaining in any case in which the indictment or information charges any serious felony, any felony in which it is alleged that a firearm was personally used by the defendant, or any offense of driving while under the influence of alcohol, drugs, narcotics, or any other intoxicating substance, or any combination
thereof, is prohibited, unless there is insufficient evidence to prove the people's case, or testimony of a material witness cannot be obtained, or a reduction or dismissal would not result in a substantial change in sentence.
(3) If the indictment or information charges the defendant with a violent sex crime, as listed in subdivision (c) of Section 667.61, that could be prosecuted under Sections 269, 288.7, subdivisions (b)through (i) of Section 667, Section 667.61, or 667.71, plea bargaining is prohibited unless there is insufficient evidence to prove the people's case, or testimony of a material witness cannot be
obtained, or a reduction or dismissal would not result in a substantial change in sentence. At the time of presenting the agreement to the court, the district attorney shall state on the record why a sentence under one of those sections was not sought.
(b) As used in this section "plea bargaining" means any bargaining, negotiation, or discussion between a criminal defendant, or his or her counsel, and a prosecuting attorney or judge, whereby the defendant agrees to plead guilty or nolo contendere, in exchange for any promises, commitments, concessions, assurances, or consideration by the prosecuting attorney or judge relating to any charge against the defendant or to the sentencing of the defendant.
(c) As used in this section, "serious felony" means any of the following:
(1) Murder or voluntary manslaughter….
Why, Notable Trials source Sam Pierce wondered, was the Sparks plea deal considered proper, considering that legal provision?

In any event, Rampone goes on trial starting tomorrow – provided no more out-of-the-blue legal twists suddenly occur.


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