Vandalism Conviction For Writing On Planter At The Joshua Tree Courthouse During Demonstration

Donavan Caver this week was convicted by a jury on a charge of vandalism for having written with chalk  on a planter at the Joshua Tree Courthouse nearly two years ago.
Caver was among a number of demonstrators, some affiliated with the Black Live Matter movement, who were protesting what they said were injustices in the form of prejudicial treatment and incorrect verdicts at the courthouse.
Caver was convicted at the same courthouse where he was charged with having engaged in the vandalism.
Officials had banned protesting on the grounds of County of San Bernardino/State of California property in Joshua Tree, to which the protesters objected. Revealed during the jury trial, which took place on July 27, 2022, was that on the day of Caver’s offense, July 31, 2020, 40 sheriff’s deputies had been assigned to the outside grounds of the government center in Joshua Tree, which includes the courthouse, as part of an effort to keep the governmental quarters free of protesters.As a show of defiance and to register objections to the underlying issue of the repeated and institutionalized injustice the movement claims is passed off as a fair legal process at the courthouse as well a making a statement in solidarity with the protests then occurring nationwide over the Minneapolis Police Department’s May 25, 2020 killing of George Floyd, Caver used chalk to write on a planter “FTP.” According to the sheriff’s department, FTP stood for “Fuck The Police.” According to Caver he intended it as both “Free The Protesters” and “For The People,” meaning that the justice system and the courthouse was intended for the citizenry and not the authorities.
Evidence was presented that Caver wrote on the planter while standing directly in front of a deputy. The sheriff’s department alleged in the arrest report that Caver had evinced consciousness of guilt by seeking to avoid capture after the act of vandalism. That was contradicted by testimony from other deputies and evidence that suggested Caver made a purposeful show of defiance as an act of protest.
Immediately prior to the trial, the prosecution was prepared to present testimony from a sheriff’s deputy that the planter still bore visible markings of Caver’s vandalism. The district attorney’s office made a last-minute decision not to call the deputy when photographic evidence was presented showing that the markings are no longer visible.
According to Caver, he used chalk rather than paint because it would not permanently efface the property and his intent was to merely register a protest on the day in question while the protesters were being restricted and prevented from conveying their discontent and message around the government center.
Newly appointed Superior Court Judge Kory Mathewson presided over the trial. Mathewson, who was a counselor at PricewaterhouseCoopers from 1998 until 2000 and had been in private practice for nearly 22 years before he was elevated to the bench last month, has not served as a prosecutor. Court personnel said that he has been under pressure since being assigned to Joshua Tree to comport his rulings in favor of the prosecution.
The Joshua Tree Courthouse is notorious for being a hostile forum for criminal defendants. In the 1990s, it hosted then Judge Richard Crouter, a former prosecutor who had become a judge. Inside the Joshua Tree jail was a sign which read. “You’re in Crouter Country now, boy.” Deputies in the jail and Crouter’s bailiffs routinely told those who appeared before him that they needed to plead guilty or otherwise they would be handed maximum sentences for whatever crimes they were accused of committing.
Even though the vast majority of the residents in the Morongo Basin were stridently in pro-law enforcement in orientation, Crouter’s practice of forcing everyone who came before him into a guilty plea no matter the strength or weakness of the case pending against that particular defendant was considered to be too much, and he was voted off the bench in favor of Bert Swift. After Judge Swift, who was formerly a police officer and Navy Seal, took his place at the Joshua Tree Courthouse and allowed defendants and defense attorneys the opportunity to present exculpatory evidence in a forum that provided an opportunity for juries to come to a conclusion other than the guilt of the individual charged, the district attorney’s office complained to the office of the presiding judge. Then-District Attorney Dennis Stout and then-Assistant District Attorney Dan Lough coined a nickname for Judge Swift, that being, “Notso,” as in “not so swift,” meaning he did not understand that those who appeared at the Joshua Tree Courthouse are to be adjudged guilty without question.
That tradition persists in Joshua Tree. In only the rarest of cases is a defendant exonerated after trial there and most, wisely, do not go to trial, as it is understood that a guilty plea will make for a more lenient sentence. That is partially what the protesters who were present on July 31, 2020 were attempting to bring into focus.
Judge Mathewson did not allow Caver to present any testimony or evidence as to why he had written on the planter or what he meant by “FTP.”
The crime Caver was charged with was a misdemeanor. He was fined $265.20 and was given 30 hours of community service, of which at least 8 hours is to consist of graffiti removal.
Caver was represented by attorney Peter Schlueter.
-Mark Gutglueck

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