One year after the rape and beating of a 16-year-old Richmond High student on the night of her school’s homecoming dance, seven suspects have been charged and await their hearing. The case stunned the community for happening on school grounds as several onlookers reportedly stood by. National attention poured in through the media, blogs, and Facebook.
The suspects are now set to appear in Contra Costa County Superior Court in Martinez for a preliminary hearing on Nov 15, which will determine whether there is sufficient evidence against each of them to proceed to trial.
Lawyers are confident the preliminary hearing will go ahead as scheduled despite several past postponements.
In a case with seven defendants—each with separate representation—scheduling issues have slowed down the judicial process.
Deputy District Attorney Dara Cashman said she has 17 witnesses scheduled to testify at the preliminary hearing, which she believes could take several days to conclude.
Public Defender Jack Funk—the attorney for 20-year-old Manuel Ortega—originally thought the preliminary hearing would last just four days. But he believes the DA could have as many as 24 witnesses. “With that many witnesses, each being cross-examined by seven different lawyers, it’s hard to see how it could be done in less than 3 weeks.”
Witnesses are likely to include those present at the scene on the night of Oct. 24th, 2009, plus DNA experts and police. State law allows police to testify at preliminary hearings on behalf of the victim, who is not expected to be present.
The seven defendants are Richmond residents Manuel Ortega, Jose Carlos Montano, and Elvis Josue Torrentes; San Pablo residents Cody Ray Smith and Ari Abdallah Morales; Pinole resident Marcelles James Peter; and John Crane Jr. All except Crane are young men under the age of 22.
Charges against the defendants include forcible rape and rape by a foreign object while acting in concert—legal terminology for gang rape—assault, and robbery.
All defendants, except Torrentes, also face enhancements that could result in life sentences if convicted.
Cashman declined to comment on the specifics of the case, but did say the majority of the forensic tests have come back and that the DNA evidence doesn’t link to anyone beyond those who have already been charged.
An officer close to the case said police believe they’ve found all those criminally involved and have finished their end of the investigation.
The officer also noted that police haven’t recovered any mobile phones with images or video of the crime in progress as was widely reported in the past. The officer didn’t discount the possibility that photos were taken and later deleted.
Collin Cooper, private attorney for John Crane Jr., indicated that he intends to argue his client wasn’t at the school. Cooper said that of the few dozen witnesses—including the defendants—interviewed by police, “not one said there was a middle-aged black man at the scene at all that night.”
“I find that quite bizarre,” he said. “My client is 43 and black.”
Sgt. Bisa French, spokeswoman for the police department, declined to comment on what evidence links Crane to the rape.
Public Defender Funk criticized the media coverage of the case saying the reporting has been highly inaccurate. He said the media latched on to the case with the notion that it was analogous to the Genovese case in New York City.
In 1964, Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in the early morning outside her apartment in Queens, where neighbors reportedly ignored her cries for help. Despite controversy over precisely what happened, the case became a model for a social psychological theory about bystanders not helping the victim of an ongoing crime.
Funk said the media has mistakenly drawn a connection between the two cases. He will challenge earlier reports that more than 20 people stood by watching the rape without taking any action. He did not provide any specifics to back up his claims or explain how the information relates to his client.
At the end of the hearing, if a judge is convinced there is sufficient evidence for the case to go to trial, the defendants and their lawyers will reconvene in 15 days to set a date.
Funk said if any defendant asserts his right to a speedy trial the start date could be in early February. But based on his experience, he’s not expecting a trial before June. DA Cashman would not comment about a possible trial date.
The preliminary hearing will be held on Nov. 15th at 8:30 am in the A.F. Bray Courthouse of the Contra Costa County Superior Court in Martinez.