If you cover cops and courts long enough – and most reporters at some point cover cops and courts for at least a little while – you find yourself privy to some of the highest highs and lowest lows of human behavior.
In Los Angeles, one case I covered saw half brothers – on trial for killing two women at a church service – go on a courtroom rampage, attacking their attorneys, overturning tables and chairs and biting one LAPD detective who tried to intervene. When the fracas began, the judge hit a panic button to summon bailiffs from other courtrooms to come flying. And come flying they did. I was sitting in another courtroom, on a case I no longer remember, when the bailiff leaped from his chair, grabbed the defendant by the front of his shirt and hustled the guy toward lockup while telling the judge, “We gotta go.” Judge Michael Tynan nodded wearily. The half brothers have been death row since 1993.
Same courthouse, different day, I stepped off an elevator to find a SWAT team from a Los Angeles suburb had planted themselves in a courtroom hallway, weapons drawn, so they could guard a massive cocaine stash that was being presented as evidence during a trial. My eyes got wide when I saw them; one officer smiled and raised his finger to his lips to shush me. Only problem is, while guarding the courtroom with weapons drawn, they prevented people from going inside. A few hours later, the judge declared a mistrial.
Flash forward to July 14, 2014. I am no longer in courts regularly, but I wanted to see how Monterey County Superior Court planned to handle the case of David Gomez, whose trial on charges he murdered a cellmate at Salinas Valley State Prison in 2004 was set to begin.
Gomez was convicted of robbery and rape in 1998 in LA County and sentenced to 91 years to life in prison. Gomez is nobody’s idea of a good guy. He’s nobody’s idea of a misunderstood guy. On no planet, in no dimension, would you want him near your family or your friends. In the years since he allegedly killed his cellmate, Gomez, now 48, has reportedly attacked numerous prison staff, psychologists and even his own attorneys. He slashed one of his previous attorneys across the face with a sharp-edged instrument, and he threw a mix of feces, urine and other bodily fluid at another.
And about 1pm on July 11, as Gomez was being moved from a prison isolation unit, he slipped out of his handcuffs, grabbed a bladed weapon he had hidden on himself and stabbed a guard in the head and neck three times. The wounds were, thankfully, shallow. The guard is recovering.
How do you transport a dangerous inmate to court? Very carefully. When I got into the courtroom on Monday morning, as an initial round of jury selection was ending, Gomez was being guarded by six California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officers. Three Monterey County Sheriff’s deputies were also watching him.
After the prospective jurors trickled out, it was me, the staff, the judge, the attorneys and Gomez. And Judge Julie Culver wanted to know who I was and why I was there.
“She’s press,” Gomez’ attorney, Kimberly Barnett, said. And that’s when Gomez turned in his chair, looked at me, held up his shackled hands and said, “Tell them there were no kids. Tell them,” he said. “There was no charge of child molestation. It’s a clerical error.”
You ever see a room full of people who didn’t know what to do? There we all were.
Child molesters occupy the lowest rung on the Darwinian prison ladder. In its press release about the guard attack, CDCR wrote Gomez was convicted of a sexual assault on a child. Every media outlet reported it. It’s in the prison records.
But it appears Gomez is right.
According to a very reliable court source, while Gomez was convicted of rape and another forced sex act, the victim was an adult. It might be a matter of a misplaced letter on the charge, or a misplaced parentheses. CDCR says Gomez will have to take up the error with the court.
My part is done. The exchange goes onto my list of the weirdest things I’ve encountered in court. And hopefully, David Gomez doesn’t hurt anyone else.