In a dramatic ruling, Santa Barbara Judge Jean Dandona dismissed vehicular manslaughter charges against two young men, Francisco Rodriguez and Jonathan Leon, accused of causing the death of a friend — Raul Ibarra — with whom they’d been riding motorcycles last March, finding that the testimony of two key prosecution witnesses was sufficiently shaky that it could not sustain a conviction. Making Dandona’s decision highly unusual, it came just after prosecutor Sanford Horowitz presented his case but right before the defense had to mount its own rebuttal.
Essential to the manslaughter charges was the claim the three men were racing their bikes by the Santa Barbara Tennis Club when Ibarra crashed into an oncoming car and died. If the jurors were not convinced that “a speed contest” was taking place, they had to acquit. One of the two prosecution witnesses testifying to having seen such a contest claimed the event took place an hour before it actually did. The other witness testified to having seen something that actually took place 250 feet from where she said she saw it. Based on this, defense attorney Ron Bamieh moved that the charges be dismissed. By granting his motion, Dandona pulled the plug on the prosecution’s case and ended the trial before the jury could deliberate. Although Horowitz presented many witnesses, these were the only two to testify they saw a race.
Bamieh expressed gratitude that his client, Rodriguez — facing a maximum of nine years — would be let go. But he blasted the prosecution for filing such charges with such weak evidence. He noted that the parents of the victim had vehemently opposed the prosecution of their son’s friends. At the preliminary hearing, Judge George Eskin had expressed reservations about the strength of the prosecution’s racing claims, but still found that Horowitz met the minimal threshold to take the case to trial. The trial itself was nearly overshadowed by claims by Bamieh that Santa Barbara Police Officer Jaycee Hunter had threatened him and his investigator. In fact, Bamieh — a former Ventura prosecutor — claimed Hunter’s threats made him afraid and anxious at the sight of a Santa Barbara police car, and he moved for a mistrial. (Hunter argued he merely intervened on behalf of a witness he claimed Bamieh’s investigator was intimidating in the hallway outside Dandona’s chambers.)
Dandona ruled she didn’t believe Bamieh ever felt threatened and rejected his petition for a mistrial. Because the judge had in effect called him “a liar,” Bamieh argued he could not provide Rodriguez the defense to which he was entitled, and called again for a mistrial. Again, the judge declined. The ruling should obviate Bamieh’s beef with the judge, but he vowed to pursue his claim against Hunter, pointing out he’d already filed a complaint with the police department.