Article of the Week

Stories from the A. F. Bray Courts Building

by Justice James Marchiano


The Bray Courthouse in Martinez is named after Justice A. F. Bray, a distinguished Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge and later a Presiding Justice for the First District Court of Appeal. Many noteworthy trials have taken place in the courtrooms on the second and third floors. The stories of some of those cases have been fictionalized to fit the themes of punishment, mental illness, ethics, and incarceration in our justice system. The accounts originally appeared in the Contra Costa Lawyer magazine.

Below is the fourth account of cases from Dept. 47, in which Judge Carlton confronts incarceration. This story appears in the November/ December 2010 issue of Contra Costa Lawyer. You can read the first three stories by downloading the book, designed by Nancy Young, here:Stories from the A. F. Bray Courts Building


Déjà Vu

Loss of hope plunges the possibilities of tomorrow into a mirage. On a spring day in 2008, Judge Raymond Carlton, now close to retirement, thought about the absence of hope as he presided over the jury trial of People v. Sonny Campo, CR09236, in Department 47 of the Bray Building in Martinez — Sonny Anthony Campo, the déjà vu defendant whom the jurist remembered.

Sonny Campo had been convicted of robbery from a Wells Fargo Bank in 2000. Because of a prior strike offense, he was sentenced to eight years in state prison where he was one of 158,000 prisoners within the California Department of Corrections. Sonny was 42 years old then, and had never held a steady job since coming out of foster care at age 18 without a GED. He barely remembered the life-changing altercation years ago outside of the College Lane Bar in Martinez when a ponytailed, tattooed dude with whom he had been jawing, crushed his head with a glass beer bottle. The neurosurgeon at Merrithew County Hospital said the blow fractured a portion of his skull, damaged the temporal lobe and affected his amygdala. His memory was never the same and he responded inappropriately to stressful situations. He applied for SSI payments, but never followed through on finalizing his application. Jobs were scarce for him. His sister, local churches, and non profits helped him to survive. Hope did not spring eternal for Sonny Campo.

Hope did not spring eternal for Sonny Campo.

Sonny's legal troubles involving Judge Carlton first began on a nondescript Wednesday morning in June of 1999. Sonny found himself out of money, food, and hope. Wearing a black overcoat on a hot day, he shuffled into the Concord Wells Fargo Bank on Willow Pass Road by Todos Santos Plaza. He waited until no other customers were in the bank, hurried to teller Teresa Redding, and shoved a crumpled note and a shopping bag onto the counter. The note said: "Give me mony (sic), I have a bom (sic) in my poket (sic). The plan was simple — grab the money, race three blocks to Clayton Road, and escape on BART in any direction. Ms. Redding said she could not read the scribbling and asked a perspiring Campo what he wanted. When he mumbled "money, bomb," she understood and nervously reached into a drawer where marked, explosive dye money was kept in case of a bank robbery. She put the money in the bag, including a dye pack. Campo grabbed the bag and raced out. Ms. Redding hit the alarm button and the teller next to her called 911. Concord Police Officer Jack Strout, who happened to be on foot patrol across the street in Todos Santos City Park, received a dispatch call about the robbery and a description of the perpetrator. He saw black-coated Campo a block away walking hurriedly toward Clayton Road. Strout easily caught up with Campo, stopped him, and arrested him as the money bag billowed a small red cloud from the chemical reaction of dye.

Public defender Joyce Sawyer negotiated a plea bargain with the district attorney, who was initially seeking a 12- year sentence due to Campo's record of past failed probations and a burglary strike when he was caught in a garage stealing a bicycle. Judge Carlton accepted the plea and sentenced Sonny Campo to eight years in state prison on December 23, 2000.

Campo spent the next seven Christmases in three different state prisons, finally residing at Salinas Valley State Prison, one of 4500 inmates in a facility built to house 2200. Each day was the twin of yesterday: inmate Campo rising at 6:15am, breakfast from 6:45 to 7:30, work detail, lunch, yard exercise, return to work, dinner, some TV, and lights out at 10:00pm. Campo became accustomed to the pungent smells and adjusted to the dense living and cacophonous noises emanating from the cellblock. Few in this penal warehouse seemed concerned about his rehabilitation. He sporadically attended some self improvement programs and worked in the laundry room, doing the same assignment every day. He folded bed sheets and neatly loaded them onto a cart, hundreds every day, stacked like choreographed shrouds always lying in the same perfect position. By the time of his parole two days after Christmas in 2007, Sonny Campo's circadian rhythms were so programmed that he awoke daily at 6:14am — just before the wake-up alarm — and he navigated through the day as if on automatic pilot. At exactly the same time each day he took his meals and fell asleep by 10:15 each night. His inner clock was as precise as a Swiss timepiece. As he withdrew into the unvaried routine in his prison world, he developed a sense of relief in not having to make decisions about his daily life since he did not have to decide what to do next, where to eat, what to eat, or where he would work. Repetition was its own reward. Campo had lost his existential identity.

Once on the outside in 2008 — homesless and jobless — he could not deal with the changes of the new millennium and became one of the faceless state unemployment statistics. His sister was unable to provide him with help. Like a stray with no permanent place to live, he moved from homeless shelter to homeless shelter. After three months of hopeless living, barely surviving on food stamps and handouts from church food pantries, he looked back at his prison life with nostalgia and made plans for tomorrow.

So now Judge Carlton listened attentively in Department 47 as the evidence unfolded before the jury. Public defender Joyce Sawyer again was assigned to represent Sonny Campo. She was a veteran of courtroom wars where she capably resisted the onslaughts of prosecutors. Her client could not bring himself to plea bargain when the case came to trial even though he was facing a three-strikes, 25-yearsto- life sentence. Drawing on 28 years of defending accused persons, Sawyer studied the contradictions in Campo's life and crafted a unique defense. Prosecution witnesses explained in Department 47 how Sonny Campo returned to the same Wells Fargo Bank in Concord, coincidentally presenting a note to the same teller, Teresa Redding, who gave him a dye-packed bundle of $20's. He walked out, headed to the BART station where, without any resistance, he was apprehended by Concord police officers. Like a battlefield tactician who allows the enemy to come to her, Sawyer allowed the facts to develop with little cross-examination except to accentuate the similarities between the two crimes and the markedly similar ineptitude.

In defense, she called psychologist Dr. Jonas Bergstrom, an expert on the "institutionalization syndrome." In a compelling, understandable manner, Dr. Bergstrom explained that Sonny Campo had developed a dependence on life in an institutional setting, resulting in depersonalization so that he was unable to cope with the demands of everyday living. And so he committed the crime, not with a plan to keep the bank's money, but with the hope of getting caught so that he might return to prison life. Dr. Bergstrom also explained the results of a battery of psychological tests that showed a profoundly impaired personality caused in part by Campo's brain injury.

Sawyer delivered an eloquent closing argument as she described a desperate, hopeless man, conditioned to life in prison, who did not intend to permanently deprive Wells Fargo of its money. Robbery required the specific intent to permanently deprive the owner of property. But Campo's intent was to stage a robbery, temporarily take the money and get caught; the money would be returned and he would return to prison. It was all a déjà vu charade. Judge Carlton listened and thought this Kafkaesque character had a win-win situation. If the jury bought the argument, Sonny Campo would be found not guilty of robbery. If not, he would realize his hope to return to prison life. As he sent the jury out to do justice in their deliberations, the judge reflected on hope revived and wondered about Sonny's tomorrow: would Sonny Campo be found guilty of robbery or guilty of an inability to survive on the streets of Contra Costa County?

Did you enjoy Déjà Vu? You can read the first three stories by downloading the book, designed by Nancy Young, here:Stories from the A. F. Bray Courts Building

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