After delays, hearing set for rape suspects

Richmond police have two school resource officers assigned to each of the city's high schools. (Photo by: Christina Lopez)

Richmond police have two school resource officers assigned to each of the city's high schools. (Photo by: Christina Lopez)

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.

2 Comments

  1. Maggie

    I pray and hope that justice is served. I absolutely believe they should all receive life sentences without possibility of parole if convicted.

    I also hope the victim is well, and I hope she can move on from this. All my thoughts are with her.

  2. Jack

    While this article mentions the misreporting of this case, it is also guilty of it in it’s description of what happened to the girl and the severity of her condition. This was not just a “rape and beating”.

    This girl was repeatedly raped, at times with an object. She was beaten and kicked, at times in the head until her face was so badly bruised it was blue and purple. This all occurred for reportedly over two hours and she was in such critical condition that she needed to be airlifted to the hospital. Manuel Ortega has also been charged with assault with a weapon doing serious bodily injury. In short, she was nearly killed while being viciously violated, assaulted and tortured.

    Some of those who were present told others about it and encouraged them to go and participate. This was how the police were notified when someone with an actual conscience was told and encouraged to “go back there” if he wanted to join in. He left as quickly as possible to reach someone with a phone so the police could be alerted. It is terrible to think that of all who knew about what was going on that horrible night, only one had the courage and moral character to do what was right.

    She was set up and also allegedly raped by Cody Smith who pretended to be her friend. She trusted and felt safe with him and he exploited that trust intentionally. The assaults coincided with the police at the dance leaving early. Cody Smith sought the victim out and clearly knew that she left the dance early.

    This was not random or that the rapists caught up in a drunken frenzy as some have suggested. This was almost certainly planned before anyone touched a drop of alcohol and the girl was most likely targeted for such sadistic abuse well before the night of the dance. She was being harassed and having vicious rumours spread about her well before that night to the point that she had to report it. As sick as these crimes are, their brutality and maliciousness goes much deeper.

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