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Tyisha Miller's cousin sentenced to six months in jail

by Mary Shelton Sunday, May. 06, 2001 at 8:31 AM

Bernell Butler protested for two years, the death of his cousin Tyisha Miller, at the hands of four Riverside Police Department officers. And like other before him, he learned that the District Attorney's office has been prosecuting more activists than police officers, who kill on the job.

Last week, Bernell Butler was sentenced to six months in county jail, after being convicted of a misdemeanor simple assault charge, earlier this year. Presiding Judge Edward D. Webster agreed to accept a $5000 appeal bond, to stay the sentence which was to begin next month. Most of the disagreement about the sentencing focused on a probation report.

Defense attorney Mark Blankenship argued that the sentencing report issued by the probation department contained many errors. The only accurate sentences in the report were about three or four, out of 44 total sentences, he said. He argued that the probation officer appeared to have disregarded the verdict of the jury, when completing the report.

The biggest bone of contention, was when the officer erroneously included the lessor included assault charge under the domestic violence charge(273.5) rather than the assault to commit bodily harm charge(245), an allegation acknowleged and corrected by the department in a memorandum. Blankenship argued that this report violated Butlers constitutional right to bear arms, by including a probational condition that restricted the ownership of a firearm for 10 years. However, the report said that under state law, if the defendant was related to the victim, that condition could be enacted, even if there was an acquittal on the domestic violence charge. Blankenship criticized the report further. The probation report is still not accurate when it comes to the circumstances of the offense, he said, It is a regurgitation of a hearsay series of police reports.

After several days of deliberation, the jury had acquitted Butler of all the felony charges involved with the alleged attack on his wife, as well as misdemeanor assault charges involved in another incident. Blankenship said that after the verdicts had been announced, several jury members had told him that the majority of the panel had simply gone along with three members who were adament about convicting on a lessor included assault charge, that was included during jury instructions. One juror expressed shock, when learning that Butler could be sentenced to jail, saying that the jury did not know that could happen.

Prosecutor Brian Sussman argued that conversations with jurors were irrelvevant and inappropriate hearsay. Sussman, who plans to run for District Attorney next year, said that his intent was to bring the issue of domestic violence to the publics attention, and added, I have done my job. He added that based on federal law, Butler was prohibited from owning a firearm for the rest of his life. He added that he hoped the sentencing would be moderate custody of six months in county jail, basing his reasoning on a videotaped interview that Butlers wife, Ramona Butler had with Riverside County Sheriffs Department deputies, when she initially filled out a criminal complaint. What Im trying to do here is protect Ramona Butler but also other people who come into contact with him on any basis, he said.

Ramona Butler said that the incident never happened, and the trial had created great stress on her family, which was already facing hardship after the death of Tyisha Miller in December 1998. My husband is not guilty of any of the crimes he is accused of, she said. Ramona Butler had recanted her story at both the preliminary hearings and the actual trial.

Bernell Butler said that he was being prosecuted because he had protested the death of his cousin, who was shot to death by four white Riverside police officers as she lay unconscious inside a car. This is a slap in my face as a minister, to be accused of these charges, he said. He talked about how he and his brother Dwayne Butler had stood in the gap between angry demonstrators and police officers, during the protests that followed Millers shooting. The demonstrators could have been violent, burnt the city down, he said.

Judge Webster said he would follow the probation report to the letter and initially sentenced Butler to 30 days in jail, a 52-week anger management program, assorted fines and three years formal probation, but Butler opted to do the maximum jail time of six months. Webster said he would stay the sentence, while an appeal was filed. Webster chided Butler for allegedly abandoning his family, while protesting against his cousins death though he admitted that Butler had kept the protests peaceful. Rarely do we see people who are saints in all aspects of their lives and Mr. Butler certainly is not that, he said. He lauded the probation report as fair, accurate in everything that they reported. He said he was impressed by how Butler handled the arrest of the Reverend Ron Gibson for contempt during the trial, but doubted the truth of some of his testimony. I did not think he was a 100-percent credible, he said.

About the controversial probation report, Webster also acknowleged that the facts depicted in the probation report are obviously not the facts found by the jury, but are based on the transcripts of the videotape. He seemed to disregard the jurys verdict and said that in domestic violence cases, the jurors sympathy for both sides affects their verdict.

During sentencing, Butler said he felt like a political prisoner, because he did not have the money to pay the fines, nor could he afford an alternative probation report. I have no alternative but to accept six months, he said.

Butlers court days are not over. He still faces misdemeanor charges related to a November 1, 1999 in which he and 60 other activists shut down the 91 freeway, and walked on and prayed for justice. That case may be tried next month.

Blankenship reflected on the court experience of representing Butler, and marveled at how he was reviled in the courthouse but revered on the streets. The community look to Reverend Butler as a person who stands tall for what he believes in, he said.

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