“It always surprised him when he thought of it later that he did not sink under the load of despair.”
― Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
Life is complicated, as is love, as is the application of law. When all three collide in an incident of domestic violence, the outcome can be unpredictable and, at times, unjust.
In every incident of domestic violence, officers on the scene decide whether to arrest and charge one, both, or neither of the parties involved. The goal of criminal justice in domestic violence is to protect the victim while ensuring appropriate legal penalties are imposed, and rehabilitation for the abuser when appropriate.
In the winter of 2013, a neighbor reported a domestic disturbance at the residence of Albert Joseph Moyer Jr. and his girlfriend, who has since passed away from causes unrelated to the case. Her name is withheld out of respect for her family.
The criminal case that resulted has taken a series of inexplicable twists. Throughout, Moyer has acknowledged his part in what occurred and maintained he was not the aggressor. On September 31, motions will begin in his trial—its outcome will set a course for the rest of his life.
Moyer’s decision not to take a plea and instead risk going to trial in Riverside County, is a profile in courage. The Bureau of Justice Statistics indicated nearly 90 percent of all felony convictions in America are the result of plea bargains and, according to the California Sentencing Institute, as of December 31, 2015, Riverside County had 608 adults in prison for every 100,000 residents—125 percent of the statewide average.
It is not unusual for the wrong person to be arrested and charged in a domestic violence case, as circumstances are not always clear cut. Charges can range from misdemeanors to felonies for aggravated battery or battery with serious bodily injury.
Moyer is not a felon and was never involved in previous incidents of domestic violence. He continues to claim he was the one attacked—struck in the head with a glass candle holder—and reacted in defense. He sustained injuries that required medical treatment, including stitches. The alleged victim, who sustained a busted lip and slight nose bleed, declined medical attention. She had a documented history of prescription drug misuse and non-prescription drug abuse.
This report is not an attempt to blame the alleged victim, but rather to explore circumstances related to the case. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Justice reported more men than women were victims of intimate partner physical violence, and over 40 percent of severe physical violence incidents were directed at men. In Moyer’s case, although both parties sustained injuries and he was the one treated at the hospital, he was also the only one charged.
Riverside County Chief Deputy District Attorney (DA) Kelli Catlett was asked about the decision to charge only Moyer, among other questions related to the case. “We cannot address your remaining questions that are factually specific to the instant pending case,” she replied. “To do so would be to try this case in the court of public opinion instead of in the court of law before a judge and jury. We are duty bound to ensure a fair trial for all parties, the victim and the defendant, and to do so we must refrain from commenting on the subject of pending litigation.”
The DA was also asked why officers on the scene took a statement from the alleged victim but not from Moyer, and she was asked to provide clarification regarding established policy in this regard. The DA provided the same response noted above.
Moyer was arrested, charged with domestic violence, and released on bond. As he awaited trial, his father became seriously ill and he travelled to Michigan to care for him. While away, Moyer missed his court date and a bench warrant was issued for his arrest.
In October 2014, Moyer’s father, who shares the same name, was stopped for a traffic violation. When officers ran his name, his son’s warrant appeared. Later, police came to the Moyer residence and took Moyer Jr. into custody. He was released because the warrant was purportedly non-extraditable. However, within hours, he was re-arrested and held in the Michigan County jail for nearly a month while his attorney tried unsuccessfully to block extradition. According to his father, the warrant was allegedly upgraded from un-extraditable to extraditable without a judge’s signature.
During this same period, USA Today prepared a scathing investigative report, published in two parts on December 18, 2014 (Police Stop Pursuing nearly 79,000 fugitives) and December 19, 2014 (Nearly 4,000 fugitives find freedom beyond state lines).
The December 18, report stated, “Nationwide, police and prosecutors quietly told the FBI they had abandoned their pursuit of nearly 79,000 accused felons during the past year and a half. They have given up chasing people charged with armed robbery and raping children. . .”
It continued, “The authorities had previously told the FBI—which maintains a vast index of the nation's fugitives—that they would arrest each of those suspects if police anywhere else in the United States happened to find them, a process known as extradition. But in each case, police and prosecutors have since indicated they will no longer fetch the fugitives if they flee.”
The December 19, 2014 report read, in part, “. . . thousands of Riverside County fugitives . . . are no longer being pursued across state lines. Over the past 19 months, nearly 4,000 felony fugitive warrants have been reclassified as ‘non-extraditable,’ abandoning the pursuit of accused robbers, rapists and, in a few cases, killers.”
The Desert Sun and USA Today, collaborating on the report, said, “Our investigation revealed that non-extradition warrants. . . have inexplicably skyrocketed in Riverside County.” Riverside had nearly 16,600 outstanding felony warrants listed in the FBI file and nearly half—8,150—were classified as non-extradition warrants. Between May 2013 and the time of the USA Today report, the percentage tripled.
Even stranger, three of Riverside County's "Most Wanted" fugitives were shifted to non-extradition warrants. Neither the Riverside Sheriff's Department nor the DA's office could explain why the reclassification occurred.
Was Moyer’s case caught-up in this mysterious reclassification of warrants? When the DA was asked why Moyer’s warrant was apparently reclassified to extraditable without a judge’s signature, she indicated this reporter’s understanding of events was not accurate. “There was a bench warrant issued by the Court on January 17, 2014, at the request of the District Attorney’s Office when the defendant failed to appear in court,” she explained. “All warrants are extraditable in California at the request of the District Attorney and subject to an extradition hearing and a Governor’s warrant, should one be requested by the defendant.”
The DA’s comments stood in stark contrast to the USA Today report that revealed thousands of fugitives had crossed state lines and were not pursued by Riverside County. Catlett was asked what made Moyer such a priority for extradition. “In this case,” she replied, “the defendant is charged with multiple serious and violent felonies which in the exercise of our prosecutorial discretion, warranted extradition. Beyond this, we cannot comment on the subject of pending litigation, nor do we release our internal policy, deliberative processes or protected attorney work product.”
Despite the DA’s response, Moyer was not charged with the more serious felony of attempted murder until his preliminary hearing in May 2015—nearly six months after his extradition.
As has become commonplace for Moyer, the attempted murder charges evolved in an unusual way. In March 2015, a new prosecutor, Alberto Recalde, was assigned to the case and purportedly told the defendant, “I am one of the best and will have several private investigators locate the victim and make her testify against you [she had failed to appear at previous hearings] if you don’t take this plea deal [of four years and eight months].” Moyer refused the deal.
During his preliminary hearing in May, the victim finally appeared. Her testimony deviated greatly from her original statements. It was during this hearing that the prosecutor introduced allegations of strangulation—Recalde appeared to make good on his promise.
In 2011, California passed legislation making strangulation in domestic violence cases a felony. By 2013, at least 30 states had passed similar statues and a New York Times report revealed most had difficulty securing convictions. Attorney H. Benjamin Perez told the reporter that, in his opinion, “. . . the strangulation charge was being overused. It seems like it’s being tested to see where it can stick.”
Gael Strack, Chief Executive Officer at the National Family Justice Center Alliance in San Diego, where California’s strangulation legislation originated, said in 2011 that “. . . police officers often do not receive the training necessary to identify a victim's subtle symptoms.” According to Strack, the new law called for consistent, statewide training on how to identify, investigate and prosecute a strangulation case.
Sergeant Chris Willison, Information Officer at the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department confirmed, “We do provide specific training to all sworn staff in Domestic Violence, which includes Choking/Strangulation in the Basic Academy, Deputy Transition School, and continual training. We recognize the highly sensitive nature involved in these particular investigations, and the need for trained personnel to be familiar with the elements that surround these types of investigations.”
With such laser focus and training, many question how strangulation allegations against Moyer were never mentioned in his charges from the time incident in 2013, (although the alleged victim claimed she was chocked in her statement, according to the defendant’s father, the officers and medical professionals on the scene purportedly did not concur), through the plea offer in March 2015, only to surprisingly surface during the preliminary hearing in May 2015.
According to Moyer’s father, “The police and EMT did a full diagram of all injuries and did not include any marks of bruising or blackening of the eyes or busted blood vessels in the eyes which are associated with strangulation. They did point an arrow to the throat as being sore.”
The ambiguity of this case must also be viewed in context of Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project report released this month that examined court rulings related to prosecutorial misconduct.
Riverside ranked fifth in the nation in prosecutorial misconduct with four reversals and 32 cases of misconduct. The Orange County Register noted, “Because it’s rare and difficult for a convicted defendant to prove in court that a prosecutor engaged in misconduct, the relatively high rate of reversals is troubling.”
Moyer’s case shines light on a plethora of issues related to Riverside County’s criminal justice system:
- Moyer has no history of violence or felony arrests.
- Although Moyer’s injuries were more grievous and required medical attention, including stitches, he was the only one arrested and charged.
- Moyer was singled out for extradition while Riverside allowed thousands of violent criminals to flee the state with no intention of pursuing them for extradition.
- Moyer was offered and declined a plea deal only to later have the charges against him increase to attempted murder, based on allegations of strangulation.
- Officers who responded to the domestic violence call failed to document suspicions of strangulation and the alleged victim never mentioned it in her statement.
- Finally, Riverside ranks fifth in the nation in incidents of prosecutorial misconduct.
The Voice/Black Voice News will continue to follow this story.