Albion Monitor /News

Mendocino D.A. Found in Contempt

by Nicholas Wilson

on "Bear" Lincoln Case

report on this story

UKIAH, CA -- Tying up one of the loose ends in the Bear Lincoln murder trial, Mendocino County District Attorney Susan Massini was found in contempt of court for violating a strict gag order imposed by presiding Judge John Golden. Massini was fined $500 and sentenced to five days in the county jail for the violation.

It's unlikely, however, that the D.A. will find herself in the slammer because visiting judge Carlos P. Baker, Jr. suspended the penalties provided Massini keeps her nose clean for "the balance of the trial." The Lincoln trial ended September 29, and the gag order was lifted the following day.

Judge Baker is a traveling judge whose home is in Santa Cruz, and apparently had not heard news of the trial's conclusion when he signed the contempt order October 10.

Unheard of for the actual District Attorney to get caught up in what Serra called "a mixed legal and moral thing"
In a brief written decision, Baker said the court finds that the gag order required Massini not to make any disclosure about the Lincoln case, "including providing an opinion to the public concerning any matter involved in this proceeding." Baker ruled also "that the order was valid, that Ms. Massini had knowledge of the order and had the ability to comply, but willfully disobeyed the order" when she told Press Democrat reporter Mike Geniella that, in her opinion, it was unfair of public radio station KZYX to broadcast only the defense side of the trial. (The station began broadcasting as soon as the judge gave permission.)

In an interview with the Monitor today, Lincoln's lead counsel Tony Serra spoke about the case from his San Francisco waterfront law office. "I was pleasantly surprised we got the contempt order on her." Serra said his team member Omar Figueroa prepared the contempt motion, and Serra had intended to argue it himself, but it was rescheduled several times and ended up on Friday, September 26, when he had another commitment. Co-counsel Philip DeJong reluctantly but ably handled the hearing, questioning Massini and Geniella on the witness stand. (See Monitor story)

Serra commented that to his knowledge he had never heard of another California county D.A. being held in contempt in this way. Sometimes a deputy D.A. will get in trouble for procedural blunders, such as failing to provide discovery or hiding a witness from the defense. But it is unheard of for the actual District Attorney to get caught up in what Serra called "a mixed legal and moral thing."

"She, in a cavalier fashion put herself above law and order and intermeddled where a case could have been close. There was a gag order that was allegedly trying to insulate the jury from improper evidence. She was saying her bit and it poisons the well for a future trial, if there ever is one. I think her integrity has been impeached, and I think it's something big. I think she ought to be ashamed of herself. I think it's a disgrace. I don't take it lightly.

"She got five days suspended, like it's some misdemeanor, hanging five days over her head in case there's a retrial and they re-gag us. In a death penalty case you'd think she'd keep her mouth shut. As a public figure she should feel censured.

"This ruling was based on the least of the three transgressions that we alleged. That was because she had not been served with the order before the first instance, when she commented about jury tampering allegations. Later the Press Democrat published false statements she made that deputies Davis and Miller had clean service records, but she said there had been a delay in publishing that comment, and when she made it she had not yet been served with the order. So technically, before she was served she was not bound by the order. I think she was well aware of the order, however, and violated the spirit of it in those other two instances as well as violating the spirit and the letter of it in the KZYX comments."

Attorney General rules no jury tampering
In another loose end tied up, Serra announced at an October 2 press conference that the jury tampering investigation by the state Attorney General's office had produced the result he had predicted before it began. While jury selection was ongoing, Deputy Sheriff Brandon VanCamp allegedly told prospective juror Harry Rothman as he waited outside the courtroom that Lincoln had confessed to the murder. Rothman immediately reported the incident and identified VanCamp as the person who made the statement, then asked Rothman not to repeat it to anyone.

Serra reacted immediately with outrage, and demanded an immediate inquiry into the incident by the judge, with the accused deputy to be questioned by Serra or other members of the Lincoln legal team. After the matter had been put off and rescheduled several times, and when the prosecution suggested and Judge Golden ruled that it would be investigated by the Attorney General, Serra had said, "They'll whitewash it and sweep it under the rug."

Later, Serra said, the defense learned that the deputy A.G. assigned to the case was on vacation, and when he returned the case was reassigned to another deputy who was on vacation. And so it went for the whole balance of jury selection and the trial itself.

Serra said the Lincoln defense team had finally received a letter from the A.G.'s office at the end of the trial saying the investigation into the incident had concluded with a finding that deputy VanCamp had made thoughtless and improper comments, but that there was no malicious intent, no crime, and no conspiracy on the part of the Sheriff's department to influence the jury.

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Albion Monitor October 22, 1997 (

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