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Facing Salcedo decision, county DA looks back

Brad Fenocchio talks about trial successes, disappointments
By: Jenifer Gee Journal Staff Writer
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Pleas are the standard, trial convictions are most likely, acquittals occur periodically, a hung jury happens on occasion and third trials are few and far between. Yet the Placer County District Attorney’s Office has found itself faced with the decision as to whether to say “yes” to a third trial involving a nanny, a grieving family, a 15-month-old girl and the community impacted by her death. Veroncia Martinez Salcedo is charged with assault causing the death of a child in the May 2006 death of toddler Hannah Rose Juceam. The prosecution contends that Hannah died as a result of brain injuries caused when Salcedo shook the toddler. The defense argued that a virus, and ultimately a stroke, caused Hannah’s death. Salcedo has been tried twice. The first trial ended in October with the jury stuck at a 10-2 vote in favor of guilt. The second trial ended in June with the jury “hopelessly deadlocked” at 9-3 in favor of acquittal. Monday, the prosecution is expected to announce whether it will seek a third trial. When it comes to deciding whether or not retry a case, Placer County District Attorney Brad Fenocchio said a different approach is taken each time. The office reviews the facts of the case, and how those facts played out in court. “We think about what can we do in an effort to seek justice to make it more understandable,” Fenocchio said. “Sometimes we have the answers, sometimes we’ve done the best with what we have.” Fenocchio recounted some of the retrials in Placer County’s history including a mid-‘90s three strikes case, People vs. Kidwell. The defendant was charged with assault with a firearm. The first trial ended with a hung jury. The second trial ended in conviction. In the people vs. Chappell, a bank robber’s fate was undecided at the end of the first trial, but he was later convicted at a second trial. Fenocchio has tried a case against a child molester that ended in a hung jury in the first trial and the second trial resulted in acquittal. He also recalled a case that went to a third trial in the early ‘80s. In the People vs. Gonzalez, the murder trial resulted in two hung juries. The third trial, however, ended in conviction. When it comes to the cost of retrials, Fenocchio said there are other factors that are weighted more in the decision. “(Cost) is certainly something people are concerned about in the general public,” Fenocchio said. “But it is something that wouldn’t prevent us from seeking the outcome we feel is appropriate.” For Fenocchio, one of the most significant cases he tried occurred in 2001 and involved one man and his five victims. Arturo Suarez currently sits on death row in San Quentin for the deaths of two men, a 5-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl. The bodies were found in a pre-dug grave in a ranch off Atwood Road in Auburn. The only reason police were led to the scene, Fenocchio said, is because the last probable victim, Yolanda Martinez, was able to escape. Martinez, who was beat unconscious and raped by Suarez the same day as the murders, had regained consciousness before Suarez was presumably returning for her to take her to dirt hole in which he had buried the other four victims — the two men shot and the two children buried alive. Martinez eventually testified against Suarez in what Fenocchio described as a case with no victory. “It was a very difficult case,” Fenocchio said. “Even though there was a conviction, there was so much loss and devastation there was no such thing as a winner in a situation like that.” During his more than 20-year tenure in the Placer County District Attorney’s Office, Fenocchio said his staff has shared multiple accomplishments. An aggressive stance on drunk driving violations is one mark of pride for the office, Fenocchio said. The office has in recent years a 91.5 percent conviction rate for drunk drivers arrested in Placer County — one of the highest percentages in the state, Fenocchio said. “Some people say it’s only drunk driving, but we say that’s one of the only things keeping us at risk,” he said. In 2004, the California District Attorney’s Association recognized prosecutor Tom Beattie as Prosecutor of The Year for rural and midsize counties. Beattie was also the prosecutor for what he describes as the O.J. Simpson case of Placer County. “The Southerland case was as big a miscarriage of justice as the O.J. case, no ifs, ands or buts,’ Beattie said. In the late 90s, a young man shot his stepfather and half-brother to death in the family’s mobile home in Lincoln. The first trial for Michael Southerland ended with a hung jury with a 9-3 vote in favor of guilt, Beattie said. The second trial ended in acquittal. “It’s probably the most tragic retrial in any case in Placer County history,” Beattie said. As the office reaches a decision concerning the People vs. Salcedo, Fenocchio says ultimatley he has faith in his staff to fulfill the responsibilities of the District Attorney’s Office. “All sorts of people have worked here and made things happen with such frequency and at a high level,” Fenocchio said. “They’ve really done a remarkable job. I’m fortunate to be here at they same time they are.” The Journal’s Jenifer Gee can be reached at jeniferg@goldcountrymedia.com or post a comment.