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Calif. Supreme Court lets charges in Pelican Bay prison riot go to trial

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 2 days ago By Bob Egelko
a view of a body of water with a mountain in the background: The prison at Pelican Bay in Crescent City — the state Supreme Court is allowing prosecutors to proceed to trial on assault and mayhem charges against four inmates who are accused of taking part in a riot there but not of physically attacking anyone. © Dan Cesareo//National Geographic

The prison at Pelican Bay in Crescent City — the state Supreme Court is allowing prosecutors to proceed to trial on assault and mayhem charges against four inmates who are accused of taking part in a riot there but not of physically attacking anyone.

The state Supreme Court allowed prosecutors Wednesday to go to trial on assault and mayhem charges against four inmates who are accused of taking part in a riot at Pelican Bay State Prison but not of physically attacking anyone.

Eight guards were injured and five inmates were shot and wounded in the melee at the maximum-security North Coast prison in May 2017. The court denied review Wednesday of an appellate ruling in March that said alleged participants in the riot could be charged with assaults committed by others that were a “natural and probable consequence” of the violence. A defense lawyer described it as “collective guilt.”

The violence started with a fight between two prisoners in a high-security yard. Guards responded with clubs and gas grenades, and one shot and wounded one of the inmates.

Angry inmates then charged the officers in large numbers, beating and kicking them, the First District Court of Appeal said in its March ruling. One guard was knocked unconscious and others suffered serious injuries, none of them life-threatening.

After prosecutors filed their first charges against four inmates, a Del Norte County magistrate found no evidence that the four men had struck anyone and said it was unclear they had even taken part in the riot. Superior Court Judge Leonard LaCasse then dismissed the charges, saying prosecutors had presented evidence of a “tumultuous riot situation” but no proof the defendants had done anything.

But the appeals court said there was evidence that could show the four men had participated in the riot — one had a gunshot wound, two had blood on their clothing, and an officer said the fourth man had tried to lunge at him. So the only issue was whether rioters would reasonably have known that officers were likely to be assaulted and seriously injured, the court said.

“The riot involved the use of force or violence by numerous inmates against correctional officers who were significantly outnumbered,” and assaults were “reasonably foreseeable,” Justice Tracie Brown said in the 3-0 ruling.

The defendants appealed to the state’s high court, which unanimously denied review Wednesday, clearing the way for a trial and making the appellate ruling a binding precedent for trial courts statewide.

Eric Weaver, one of the defense lawyers, said Wednesday there was little evidence the four men had taken part in the riot, much less that they had assaulted anyone.

“You have a scrum involving 130 men, and the client ends up with some scrapes and some blood on himself,” Weaver said. “They don’t bother to test whether it’s his or somebody else’s blood.” He said another defendant had simply stood up, some distance away from the violence, when a guard told him to sit down.

“To me, that’s collective guilt, it’s not individual responsibility,” Weaver said. At the trial, he said, prosecutors will have to prove that the four men took part in the riot and must have known that guards were likely to be assaulted.

The case is People vs. Abelino, S268637.

Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: begelko@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @BobEgelko

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