Jury Hangs & Mistrial Declared In Smith-Jones Assault Trial

Corie Smith, the former sheriff’s deputy who was presented with two lifesaving awards in 2020 but whose law enforcement career ended in ignominy the following year when he was caught on video kicking a prone and surrendering suspect in the head, this week successfully concluded his and his legal team’s three-year battle to keep him from being labeled a felon.
Smith’s trial on the charge begun on April 29 before Judge Ingrid Uhler with Deputy District Attorney Melissa Emperatriz-Rivera prosecuting the matter and Smith represented by attorneys Michael Selyem and Kasey Castillo. Evidence was presented and testimony heard on April 30, May 1, 6, 9, 10, 13, 14, 15, 16, 20, 21, 22, 23, 29, 30, with deliberations beginning on May 30 and continuing on June 3 and 4.
At three junctures the panel took a vote as to where it stood. The first time, jurors were evenly split, 6-to-6 for acquittal and conviction; the second time 7-to-5 for acquittal and, on June 4, 7-to-5 for conviction.
At that point, Judge Uhler declared a mistrial and scheduled a hearing on June 7 in order to begin preparations for a retrial.
During the trial, on May 14, Selyem and Castillo brought a PC1118.1 motion, based on the presentation of testimony and evidence to that point which they said clearly demonstrated there was insufficient evidence before the court to sustain a conviction, such that the case should not be submitted to the jury for a decision and an acquittal should be entered. Judge Uhler denied the motion. On June 7, Emperatriz-Rivera came to court, prepared to request the court’s permission to retry the case. At that point, however, Judge Uhler, apparently on the basis of the jury’s failure to reach a verdict and the May 14 PC1118.1 motion, over Emperatriz Rivera’s objection dismissed the case against Smith.
Smith’s prosecution and departure from the department came about as a result of the occurrences in the late evening of Tuesday June 15/early morning of Wednesday June 16, 2021. A motorcyclist, later identified as the 32-year-old Willie Jones III, was observed by a deputy operating his motorbike in a flagrantly dangerous manner in the area of Seventh and Lincoln streets in Victorville. When an effort to pull Jones over was made, Jones accelerated and, traveling at excessive speed, ran multiple traffic signals, entered the northbound lanes of Interstate 15 in the opposite direction and almost collided head-on into several vehicles. A radio dispatch from the pursuing patrol deputy went out.
Thereafter, Jones exited the freeway in the vicinity of Roy Rogers Drive/La Paz Avenue, then headed toward the Valley Hi Toyota Dealership, located on Valley Center Drive. He dropped his bike at the side of the road behind the dealership and fled onto the dealership’s lot on foot. There, for a time, he hid behind and between several cars and trucks, in their shadows and underneath the vehicles’ undercarriages.
Surveillance footage of the lot, which was later obtained by multiple news outlets including the Sentinel, showed what appeared to be a lot lit by overhead lights with ten vehicles in the video’s range of field. There was no immediate activity, but roughly five seconds into the video, Jones was seen crawling out from underneath a black pickup truck. He remained crouched down, and roughly 22 seconds into the video he remained crouched as he creeped in the direction at an angle that brought him somewhat closer to the camera, mounted at an elevated level. Jones made his way to the front of another vehicle, an SUV, and then moved in the same direction, yet crouching, toward another pickup truck. Having reached that point, he stood upright and continued past that pickup truck to another vehicle, what appears to be a white compact, assuming a casual attitude, but looking back in the direction from which he had come. At 37 seconds into the video, Deputy Smith came into the camera’s field of view from the direction in which Jones was looking.
At that point, Jones began walking, at first nonchalantly, back in the direction from which he had come as if to see if he could simply pass himself off as a pedestrian walking through the car lot. When Smith immediately veered in his direction, however, Jones raised his hands in a show of surrender and Jones, carrying what appeared to be either a lit flashlight or a laser source came toward him. At 42 seconds into the video, Jones began to bend down and at 44 seconds into the video he was on his knees with his hands touching the ground, and he appeared to be heading into a prone position. At 46 seconds, Jones’ hips were flat on the ground as were his forearms, with his neck and head arched up, just as Smith began a powerwalk and rather gratuitously, using his right foot, licked Jones in the head with considerable force. Smith then shone the light he was holding on Jones, and at 48 seconds into the video, kicked him in the head once more, this time somewhat less forcefully. Jones, whose position on the ground shifted to his right somewhat because of the violence of the kicks, laid completely prone, with his head on the pavement. Smith at that point bent down and seized Jones’ left arm at the 51 second point and bent it up to take it behind Jones and begin handcuffing him. Smith had bent Jones’ right arm back to fully effectuate the handcuffing at 53 seconds, when another deputy came into the video’s frame of view. That deputy assisted Smith and at one minute and seven seconds into the video, a third deputy arrived. A fourth deputy arrived at the 1:34 mark and then a fifth deputy four seconds later. From that point on, Jones’ arrest was carried out with no further incident on the video, and Jones was led away.
The timing of the incident, coupled with the release of the video, which the department proved unable to prevent, amidst other events of impact and significance on the department made Smith’s continuing tenure with the department ultimately untenable.
The violence exhibited against Jones during the arrest came two weeks and one-and-one-half days after Sheriff’s Sergeant Dominic Vaca was killed in Yucca Valley in broad daylight during the noon hour on May 31, 2021 at the end of an incident in which deputies there sought to make a traffic stop of another motorcyclist, Bilal Winston Shabazz, for riding a motorcycle without a license plate. Like Jones, Shabazz fled and when Vaca approached him, Shabazz, who was armed, shot and killed him. Shabazz was himself mortally wounded by other deputies at the Yucca Valley scene.
Two days after the Smith’s run-in with Jones, then Sheriff John McMahon, who had been sheriff since he was appointed to that post in 2012 following his predecessor Rod Hoops resignation and was then elected in his own right in 2014 and 2018, announced his resignation to take effect the following month, and then requested that the board of supervisors appoint his undersheriff, Shannon Dicus, as his successor.
The morning of June 16, Jones, yet in the custody of the sheriff’s department, was treated at a hospital for injuries sustained during his arrest and then driven back to the Victorville Sheriff’s Station, where he was placed into an interrogation room. At that point, information had been provided to mid-level sheriff’s department supervisors that excessive force had been used against the suspect. While he was yet in the interrogation room, Jones was approached by a detective and a sergeant and told that he would be released from custody without his booking being recorded, his motorcycle would be returned to him and he would be provided with $4,000 in cash, if he were to “just forget about” what had happened and sign a “blue sheet,” essentially a waiver releasing the deputies involved, the department and the county from any liability over the arrest. Jones signed the document, was presented with a check for $4,000 and was released later that day without having been given a date for a court appearance.
On June 17, a civilian employee of the company providing security at the Valley Hi Toyota Dealership, having been nudged by inquiries from the sheriff’s department to the dealership as to possible overnight security video recordings, played back the early Wednesday morning footage from the security video cameras perched around the dealership’s lot, coming upon the incident between Smith and Jones.
The department was bracing to stonewall media inquiries, confident, or relatively so, that they would be limited to local newspapers, over which the department professes to maintain control, and that a description of Jones’ reckless endeavor on the motorcycle to include his wrong way dash on the freeway would sate reporters, and that a description of his having been taken into custody by “deputies” would preclude having to make any reference to Smith.
By June 19 the footage of the arrest had been downloaded from the security videos by the civilian security employee and was being conveyed to both Southern California and national media channels and platforms. TMZ was the first to broadcast the footage, giving a rough description of what had occurred. This was followed by Fox News, NBC, ABC, CNN, CBS and local newspapers in San Bernardino County and then Southern California, followed by newspapers and television stations in Northern California. In short order the incident went national and then international, with organs of information dissemination such as Business Insider India and English and French newspapers covering the incident.
While Smith’s identify was yet under wraps, McMahon put out a statement that “This incident raises concerns. I expect my deputies to remain professional while engaging the public.”
On June 19, the department announced that the deputy in question, who was not identified, had been placed on leave.
When TMZ broadcast the video, quickly followed by others, Undersheriff Shannon Dicus leapt into the breach. In a recorded video, Dicus spoke for Sheriff John McMahon, in doing so coming across as the department’s senior authority, which carried with it the desired effect of making him come across as McMahon’s logical heir apparent. Dicus said, “I want to ensure [i.e., assure] the citizens of San Bernardino County, the sheriff and I are aware of the alarming video depicting a deputy kicking a suspect. This video came to our attention after a Victorville watch commander was contacted by the security company that monitors the parking lot where this incident occurred. The watch commander reviewed the video and immediately determined the deputy’s actions were disturbing. The watch commander notified the commander of the station. I want to ensure [i.e., assure] the community it is our expectation that deputies respond to any incident professionally and in a manner that’s consistent with their training. We know the community’s trust is the platform which enables us to do our jobs. The deputy involved in this incident was immediately taken off duty and placed on administrative leave. A criminal investigation is being conducted. This investigation will be submitted to the district attorney. Subsequently, an administrative investigation will also be initiated to allow for the appropriate employment actions to be taken. It’s unfortunate when incidents like these occur, because it causes turmoil within our communities and equally amongst our deputies who pride themselves on providing professional service. We take these matters seriously, and want to assure you a thorough investigation will be conducted.”
With regional, state, national and international press attention being vectored to the matter, on June 23, the department relented and identified Smith as the deputy who had kicked and handcuffed Jones.
The following month, McMahon retired and Dicus was appointed by the board of supervisors to replace him.
While Smith remained on administrative leave, continuing to pull his $80,195.22 per year – $6,682.93 per month – salary and receive his $58,270.19 in annual benefits, the department’s promised investigation languished, as both the department and the union representing the county’s sheriff’s deputies, the Sheriff’s Employees Benefit Association, known by its acronym SEBA, were banking that controversy and public/media focus on the incident would fade to a point that Smith could eventually return to work.
The intense media attention and expressions of outrage statewide, nationwide and around the globe, however, had sensitized the district attorney’s office to the point that District Attorney Jason Anderson and his senior office administrators – in a rare break with the sheriff’s department believed it could not risk its own reputation or that of San Bernardino County by not acting. In October 2021, with minimal fanfare to avoid embarrassing the sheriff’s department but in a firm enough fashion to salvage its own standing as a prosecutorial entity, filed one count of PC 149 felony assault by a public officer against Smith.
In making the filing, the district attorney’s office did not have Smith at that time arrested, rather filing a Sesslin affidavit, a declaration of the facts in the case which would, if a judge examined them and found them to be factual, would validate an arrest relating to the charges, and upon that validation issue an arrest warrant. The district attorney’s office was exercising this degree of caution because the defendant was a police officer, and proceeding with a criminal case against an individual normally aligned with the district attorney’s office would be ill advised, prosecutors, believed, if subsequently a judge were to determine there were no grounds to proceed.
Likewise, Smith and his supporters, who included his colleagues in the department, SEBA, other law enforcement officers and the two attorneys that had been retained to represent Smith Kasey for Smith by SEBA – Michael Selyem and Kasey Castillo – played their hand equally cautiously. Confidential filings were made with the court, ones under seal that could not be assessed by the public or the press, thereby depriving reporters of information with which to keep news coverage of Smith ongoing.
Castillo was a former deputy prosecutor with the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office. Likewise Selyem was a former San Bernardino County Deputy District Attorney, and an Orange County sheriff’s deputy prior to that. Knowing full well what the case against Smith consisted of, Selyem and Castillo had Smith waive his right to an arraignment and his right to a preliminary hearing with 60 calendar days, again depriving the press of something with which to make hay.
Smith remained on administrative leave for just shy of nine months, continuing to receive his $6,682.93 per month salary and receive his $4,855.84 per month benefit package until he left the department at 10 a.m. on March 13, 2022. It was not clear whether he was terminated or resigned in lieu of being terminated on that date.
The case dragged on, with pretrial sparring going on in the back ground for more than two-and-a-half years from the time the charges were filed against him.
For the prosecution in the matter, winning would consist of getting a conviction, 12 guilty votes. Emperatriz-Rivera approached the case with some degree of optimism, believing the video which showed plainly Smith’s two gratuitous kicks to the side of Jones’ head to be incontrovertible evidence – indeed proof – that an assault had taken place and that the perpetrator could be no one other than Smith.
Meanwhile, Smith had his army of supporters, the law enforcement team, the backers of the blue, the blue itself, who were determined to demonstrate that society should support and show both understanding and compassion toward the police and peace officers who in the heat of battle bring to bear overwhelming force against lawbreakers as they seek to subdue, arrest and bring to justice those who are a threat to the civil order and are a danger to innocents. Smith’s over the top intensity in collaring the fleeing Jones, who had reached speeds approaching or exceeding 100 miles an hour as he road against traffic would give a jury the opportunity to balance Smith’s efforts to protect the community from Jones, who cavalierly comported himself in a way that could have gravely harmed it, Smith’s support network hoped.
To win, the defense did not need to prevail by getting 12 votes for acquittal. It could win by merely getting a tie, hanging the jury so that there was not unanimous sentiment for conviction.
As it would turn out, the case was won as much during jury selection as it was during the actual trying of fact before the jury that was ultimately selected. In San Bernardino County, the jury pools are stacked in favor of both prosecution and the law enforcement officers the prosecution normally represents. While there are exceptions enough to prove the rule, the vast majority of criminal cases that go to trial in San Bernardino County end with convictions. Starting from that point, during voir dire, the examination of the prospective jurors that lawyers engage in during the juror selection process, Selyem and Castillo deftly converted the advantage that the prosecution normally enjoys to the benefit of their client. They merely winnowed from the cross section of county residents brought in for being selected participate as jurors as many of those prospective members of the panel who showed themselves to be questioning of authority and authority figures or hostile to law enforcement, which in San Bernardino County are a relatively modest minority to begin with. When the trial at last began, Smith faced a jury of his peers who had enough members inherently sympathetic to peace officers that when the primary evidence against the defendant was played, a video shot across the street light-lit darkness of the parking lot from approximately 48 feet away, they were persuaded by Selyem and Castillo that plausible reasonable doubt existed that Smith had really kicked Jones. One of the kicks might have missed, missed entirely or perhaps hit him in the shoulder, Selyem and Castillo maintained. A kick to the shoulder doesn’t rise to the level of a felony the reasoning went. The second kick wasn’t as powerful as the first. That the top half of Jones’ body radically jerks with the impact of the first kick and a lesser degree with the second notwithstanding, Selyem and Castillo asserted that what occurred might not fairly be cataloged as an assault, the defense attorneys maintained. Furthermore, the video was shot from the right side of Jones, who is face down on the pavement, while Smith kicked him on the left side, and the video did not capture the perspective from the left side, the lawyers pointed out.
That reasoning was enough to convince six jurors on the first ballot, eight jurors on the second ballot and four jurors on the third ballot that if Smith was not precisely innocent of getting very physically aggressive in dealing with Jones, it could not be ascertained with exactitude that he had crossed the line into excessive force.
It is unclear at this point if Smith will attempt to find work again in law enforcement. Under the circumstances and the potential for further adverse publicity if Sheriff Dicus were to rehire him, it is not likely that he will return as a San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy.
Smith began with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department in April 2016, and had been assigned to the Victorville Sheriff’s Station since September 2017.
Earlier in 2021, the department presented him with two lifesaving awards. One of those pertained to an incident on August 26, 2020, when he responded to a call and found a two-year-old lying in a pool of blood and bleeding profusely from multiple stab wounds in his chest and abdomen. Smith used his fingers to plug the wounds to stem the bleeding until medical help arrived. The child survived. On July 11, 2020, Smith responded to a call of a woman having a medical emergency. Upon arrival, he found an unresponsive woman, with three young children in a car with the engine running inside a garage in which the temperature exceeded 140 degrees. Smith was credited with saving the lives of the children.
-Mark Gutglueck

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