Officials reflect on release of victim days before his death in officer-involved shooting (COURT TRANSCRIPT)
In the days before Gabriel Strickland’s fatal confrontation with law enforcement on New Year’s Day, a “be on the lookout” alert had been issued describing statements he made about shooting people.
He was arrested in Grass Valley after fighting with officers and being found with a loaded handgun and ammunition.
Despite an assessment of being high risk, Strickland was allowed a pre-trial release on Dec. 30 on his own recognizance. Two days later, he was dead after he reportedly pointed an altered Airsoft gun at law enforcement.
Assistant District Attorney Chris Walsh said the probation department had OK’d Strickland’s release, adding that the deputy district attorney handling his case opposed the move. However, a review of the hearing transcript contains minimal on-the-record discussion about the probation department’s report, and Walsh said Friday he believed there had been an off-the-record conversation beforehand.
The report issued by the probation department assessed Strickland as high risk, stating he was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition, resisting arrest and possessing a loaded firearm while under the influence. It also detailed a criminal history that included convictions for disobeying a restraining order, battery and resisting arrest, as well as drug violations.
The probation department noted Strickland was eligible for supervised pre-trial release, however, and recommended conditions including search and seizure terms, no controlled substances and no weapons.
According to a transcript, during Strickland’s arraignment in Nevada County Superior Court on the morning of Dec. 30, Deputy Public Defender Tamara Zuromskis asked Judge Tom Anderson to release Strickland on the probation department’s pre-trial release program. She then explained the conditions to Strickland, telling him he would be supervised by the probation department.
Anderson then asked Deputy District Attorney Casey Ayer and an unnamed probation officer if they have anything further to add.
“I wasn’t aware of the recommendation, but if Probation thinks that he is suitable and can be supervised on pretrial with those conditions, then I will submit,” Ayer responded.
“I’m going to defer to Probation’s recommendation,” Anderson told Strickland. “You will be released.”
After being told to report to probation as soon as he was released, Strickland responded, ”OK. Cool.”
A return to court was scheduled for Jan. 23.
Pre-trial release assessment
The pre-trial release program is intended to replace cash bail, which its opponents have argued unfairly penalizes poor defendants.
Chief Probation Officer Michael Ertola said he could not discuss the specifics behind the probation department report for Strickland, including whether the threats made against law enforcement were part of the report process.
He said, however, that a pre-trial release report is not supposed to be treated as a recommendation. Instead, he said, it is a set of facts regarding eligibility for release that are meant to be discussed by the district attorney, defense counsel and judge.
“The reports look at a defendant’s current situation, their life situation and their criminal justice history. We use a validated risk assessment tool, conduct a face-to-face interview and come up with a risk level,” Ertola explained.
A defendant can be released with a high risk assessment, Ertola said, if they meet the other suitability criteria. None of Strickland’s charges were “exclusionary,” meaning none of his charges were in a category that would have eliminated the possibility of pre-trial release.
“How the process works is, there is a court hearing,” Ertola said. “It comes down to the district attorney and the public defender, and the judge makes the final call. All parties do get a say, it is a group discussion.”
Ertola said he wanted to emphasize the report is not a recommendation.
“It just says he is eligible (for pre-trial release),” he said. “That is a very important point. Everybody has a responsibility, everybody has a part in the process.”
A lesson learned?
What happened to Strickland is a tragedy, said Nevada County Public Defender Keri Klein.
But, Klein said, she could not fault the pre-trial release process instituted by the probation department.
“It is a very thoughtful program,” Klein said. “Probation has taken some time with it.”
The head of the Public Defender’s Office said she did not have the answer as to why it appeared the process didn’t work for Strickland.
“From my experience, people aren’t just rubber-stamping the report,” Klein said. “Rarely do I see a release report go forward without discussion from the court.”
While the reality is that pre-trial release is never going to be 100% successful, Klein said, overall it has been shown to work.
“People do show up (for court), they aren’t out committing new offenses,” she said. “It is a good thing for the community. … Long term, pre-trial release is going to be a great thing.”
Walsh, meanwhile, said he has instructed his team to take a more stringent approach.
“In hindsight, everyone would have handled it differently,” he said. “Hopefully, some good comes out of this. Even if we are used to being shut down (in court), I’m telling my prosecutors sometimes you have to be that cynical voice, that cynical perspective, to make it an issue.”
Walsh cited a recent domestic violence case that turned into a homicide as an example, saying, ”You have to take these cases seriously.”
To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4236.
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