In prior accounts of cases from the Bray Courts Building, Judge Carlton confronted horrendous crimes. Now he finds a virtue long absent in the criminal court system.
“I hope you burn in hell!” were often the bitter words Judge Raymond Carlton heard from victims’ families in Department 47, at sentencing hearings in murder trials. Anger and a thirst for vengeance were understandable, visceral responses to crimes that acutely touched family members. But Judge Carlton learned one case was different, as he adjusted his bifocals and read the letter from the Department of Corrections, seeking his input. It was a case that had started 34 years before in a maternity ward and returned to Department 47 16 years later after a negotiated disposition — Carlton’s sole case of reconciliation.
Mexican immigrants Rosa De la Cruz and Maria Contreras gave birth to sons five hours apart at Antioch’s Delta Memorial Hospital where they became friends through sharing the same pains and joys of childbirth in adjoining rooms. It turned out they both attended Holy Rosary Church and lived within half a mile of each other. Their friendship ripened through a shared Head Start program that their two sons attended, and later through elementary school in downtown Antioch. Roberto De la Cruz and Edwardo Contreras excelled in baseball and soccer, and played together on advanced traveling teams. Their mothers attended all of their games, rooting only as proud mothers could.
But during junior high school Roberto and Edward journeyed down separate paths, Roberto continuing to play sports and Edwardo hanging out with skateboarders and young, would-be rappers. The mothers occasionally saw one another at church services and some school events.
During high school, Roberto played on the varsity soccer team and was part of the jock group at recesses and on weekends, while Edwardo lagged behind in his school work, was scholastically ineligible for sports, and eventually was transferred to the continuation high program in Antioch. Despite prodding from his mother, Edwardo left high school to earn money as a stocker at Costco. Edwardo spent his free time at night and on weekends with his rapper buddies, plugged into hip-hop and smoking weed. Roberto was named to the league’s all-star team in his senior year and earned a scholarship to the University of Idaho to play soccer, the first in his family to go to college.
Graduation night for both families would be horrific and life-altering. It started when Roberto celebrated his diploma and scholarship at a party at a friend’s house where beer and weed were plentiful and adolescent testosterone high.
The parents of the teenage host were away. Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook messages assured a huge turnout, well beyond the number of actual invitees. The numbers swelled and the party spilled out of the house to a large, wooded front yard. Edwardo knew some of the partiers from his days at Antioch High, read about the event on Facebook, and coaxed five of his friends to crash the party.
After a few beers, angry exchanges, and some pushing and shoving with some guests, the host ordered Edwardo and the five other interlopers to leave. Roberto, light-headed from several bottles of Dos Equis, stood by, supporting the host and hurled insults at Edwardo. A threatening crowd gathered to back up Roberto. Edwardo’s friends began taunting in Spanish, pushed back a bit, and then swaggered back to their car to leave. Edwardo piled into the middle of the back seat. In a show of bravado, they turned the speaker volume high and laid rubber by the driveway as they signaled their noisy departure.
But they did not leave. With windows rolled down, the car made a sudden U-turn and ominously circled back by the front yard while the occupants yelled out taunting slurs at the partiers: “puta,” “cabron!” They circled around a second time, again yelling louder obscenities and honking the horn like tormenting banshees.
As Roberto hid behind a redwood tree to throw a rock at the car, someone suddenly handed him a revolver, and others urged him to shoot at the car. Like a dark shadow, Roberto waited behind the tree and impulsively discharged the gun toward the car as it passed by, sending a bullet through the middle of the back window and into the head of Edwardo Contreras, killing him instantly. The terrified youths in the car screamed and sped off too late to the emergency room at Delta Memorial Hospital. Roberto fled to his home.
A disturbed neighbor had already called the Antioch police to complain about the raucous party. A police officer arrived minutes after the shooting, was trying to disperse the crowd, and check the ages of the milling crowd, when he received a radio call about a young man dead on arrival at Delta Memorial Hospital. The yard scene was suddenly a crime scene. Multiple police units descended on the property, and witnesses were questioned. Yellow tape sealed off the area like long strips for a shroud.
The case was quickly solved as frightened witnesses described what happened and who the shooter was. The gun was found in nearby bushes. The lead detective obtained a Ramey Warrant for a house arrest and at 3:30 am went to the modest De la Cruz home where Rosa answered the loud knock, burst into tears when the officers explained why they were there, and called a scared Roberto from his bedroom. Roberto tried to explain it was an accident, was arrested and Mirandized to make his statements admissible at trial. Because he had recently turned eighteen years-old, he was booked into the adult Martinez Detention Facility.
The funeral Mass for Edwardo was gut-wrenching for the devastated Contreras family and friends. Edwardo was an only child. Unbeknownst to those attending the service, a quietly sobbing Rosa De la Cruz knelt in a dark corner of the last pew, praying for mercy and compassion for everyone involved and trying to make some sense out of a senseless act. She left the church by a back door before anyone else.
Veteran Public Defender Joyce Sawyer was assigned to represent Roberto De la Cruz, whose life was in tatters — a lost college scholarship, a disgrace to his family, a killer of someone who once had been a good friend. He was charged with first-degree murder, based on murdering Edwardo while lying in wait and implied malice because of the manner in which he fired the revolver. A sentencing enhancement for use of a gun was also alleged.
Sawyer realized the problematic case was fraught with pitfalls. There was no evidence of her client’s blood/alcohol level to argue intoxication to reduce the nature of the crime. She planned to use an expert to hypothetically explain the effect of several beers in a short time on one unaccustomed to alcohol. But eyewitnesses described De la Cruz as appearing sufficiently sober at the time of the shooting. And words of provocation in this instance were insufficient to reduce the homicide to manslaughter. She grappled with the difficult defense the death was an accident, that Roberto pulled the trigger without any specific intent of shooting anyone. Joyce Sawyer stared down a deep crevasse where the downside was a first-degree murder conviction resulting in at least twenty-eight years in state prison.
After a preliminary hearing, the case was assigned for trial to Judge Raymond Carlton in Department 47, where he had presided over many murder cases. Joyce Sawyer appeared frequently before Carlton, knew his sense of fairness, and the respect with which the District Attorney’s office held him. She met with Roberto and his mother to discuss the pros and cons of negotiating a disposition of the case and candidly outlined the risks. She carefully explained her trial strategy which could subject Roberto to rigorous cross-examination if he testified to explain why the shooting was an accident. The prosecutor was a no-holds-barred, vigorous advocate, eager to take on Sawyer’s scared, unsophisticated client.
Joyce Sawyer devised one last attempt to save a young client, who had promise and no prior criminal record, from a lengthy sentence. On Friday before trial was scheduled to commence, she scheduled a settlement conference with Judge Carlton. Although it was unusual to have the trial judge handle such discussions, the prosecutor did not object, knowing Judge Carlton could be trusted. The Contreras family waited in the empty courtroom, while a prayerful Mrs. De la Cruz remained in the hall area. The defendant was placed in a holding cell near the courtroom where Joyce Sawyer could confer with him.
Joyce Sawyer sought a manslaughter sentence because the facts arguably could fit such an outcome, resulting in a determinate, fixed sentence that would allow the defendant to be released on a known date, instead of the unpredictability of an indeterminate sentence posed by a first or second degree murder conviction. The penal code mandated six years for the middle term for manslaughter and an additional three years enhancement for using a gun.
The confident prosecutor countered with how the defendant’s lying in wait and the manner in which he fired the gun at an occupied car fit neatly into the jury instructions for first-degree murder, resulting in an indeterminate term of life with a minimum of 28 years before possibility of parole and the likelihood of serving much longer. The conservative state parole board, which would exercise its discretion as to when the defendant would actually be released, often caused a defendant to serve well beyond 28 years. To bring finality to the case, the prosecutor wanted the defendant to waive his right to an appeal of any issue, including any constitutional issue.
The battle lines were drawn. Judge Carlton met separately with Joyce Sawyer and told her the case seemed dire from what had been outlined by counsel. He knew the District Attorney would never agree to a plea of manslaughter, and Joyce’s client ran the real risk of a first-degree murder conviction. Jurors in Contra Costa County usually followed the court’s jury instructions regarding degrees of murder. A deeply concerned Sawyer explained in most cases the parole board had been inflexibly keeping prisoners with indeterminate sentences many years past the minimum time after parole was first considered, whether a first-degree or second-degree murder conviction, sometimes treating them as similar because a life had been taken.
Judge Carlton thought for a moment and proposed a second-degree murder plea and offered to put on the record his firm recommendation to the Department of Corrections the defendant be released at the earliest time possible if he behaved well, availed himself of counseling, exhibited signs of sincere remorse, and obtained an employable job skill. In other words, he had to “program well,” using the jargon of the parole board. He told Sawyer to discuss his proposal with her client and his mother, and if they agreed, he would encourage the prosecutor to accept the deal. Judge Carlton also expected some visible sign of remorse from Roberto at sentencing.
While Joyce Sawyer discussed Judge Carlton’s proposal with her client, the judge met with the prosecutor to broker a second-degree murder plea with a waiver of appellate rights to bring closure to the case. He emphasized the youthful defendant had no history of criminal behavior. After some discussion, the prosecutor contacted his office and obtained permission to accept the proposal. He discussed the matter with the Contreras family. Mrs. Contreras, still grieving, agreed to accept whatever the prosecutor recommended. A heavy heart weighed upon her.
Mrs. De la Cruz prayed silently as she and her son discussed his fate with a counseling Joyce Sawyer. If Roberto behaved well in prison and if the parole board heeded the judge’s admonition, he could be released in about sixteen years, including credit for time served and good behavior credits. It seemed the best outcome that could be achieved under the circumstances. A deal was struck.
Everyone met in the courtroom. The court reporter took down the waiver of defendant’s rights, including the right to appeal any issue, his acknowledgment his plea was knowing and voluntary, with no promises made beyond what was on the record. The charging information was amended to allege second-degree murder. Defendant’s plea was taken. The judge made findings as to the voluntariness of the plea. Sentence was imposed, and the judge put on the record his strong recommendation the defendant be released on parole immediately after he satisfied his second-degree murder sentence if he behaved as detailed in chambers to Joyce Sawyer.
Then the judge asked the defendant if he wanted to say anything. Roberto De la Cruz turned and faced the Contreras family, as his mother had told him to do, and apologized profusely for what he had done to them and asked for forgiveness. The eyes of the two heart-broken mothers met. They slowly walked toward each other, embraced tightly, and wept on each other’s shoulders. Both realized their lives had been shattered, but living had to go on. Judge Carlton knew from his study of Latin that the word “compassion” came from a Latin root, meaning to “suffer with or together,” a condition both grieving mothers had been experiencing. It was a moment of reconciliation unlike anything Judge Carlton had ever seen in his Department 47. Somehow vengeance had given way to forgiveness.
For sixteen years Mrs. De la Cruz faithfully visited her son twice a month at various state prisons to make sure he was behaving as promised. At his first parole hearing, his conduct and education evaluations were exemplary. He earned good-time behavior credits that reduced his time in prison. He also had learned welding skills. A job at a mechanic’s shop was waiting for Roberto in Antioch. The District Attorney contacted Mrs. Contreras to inquire if she objected to her son’s killer being granted parole. She did not. The police chief in Antioch did not object to Roberto’s release back into the community.
The Department of Corrections sent a letter to Judge Carlton for his opinion concerning the defendant’s release. The judge had his clerk copy the sentencing transcript, which he enclosed with his reply: if the defendant had performed as was put on the record at time of sentencing, the intent of all concerned was defendant should now be granted parole.
So Roberto De la Cruz began working in Antioch as a bench welder, and Judge Carlton learned reconciliation arises out of justice that promotes a fundamental change of heart and mind.