Amy Furtado

Sep 272013

law-gavelRick Styner case shows how criminal defendants can be easily railroaded

Yesterday I went to court to listen to the the third part of the preliminary hearing on the case against Rick Styner, the San Leandro High School teacher accused of possession of child pornography.  Unfortunately I missed the first two days of the hearing and the media coverage by the BANG papers has been atrocious.

Yesterday, the judge ruled there was sufficient cause to go to trial on charges of stealing a pair of Amy McNamara Furtado’s panties and of possessing child pornography (not for anything found in his schools computer, mind you, but for 10 files found stored in the basement of his house, that had last been accessed in 2002).

With respect to the burglary, the original allegations were that Styner went to Amy McNamara Furtado’s home, laid out some of her running gear and took pictures of it.  The problem was that that, in itself, does not constitute “burglary”.  For a burglary to exist, Styner would have had to enter the house intending to commit a felony or a theft.  But no such thing was originally alleged.

Amy is now claiming that a pair of the sports panties that Styner photographed are missing.   While that claim may not be particularly credible, in our system of law the judge doesn’t get to make that determination.  It’s up to the juries to decide on the credibility of a witness.   The question that the judged had to consider was  “are there rational grounds to believe” that Styner went to the house with the intention to steal the panties.   The judged made it clear that he wanted the defense attorney to argue that there wasn’t one, he gave him plenty of opportunities. I don’t know why the defense attorney didn’t simply say “just because panties are missing, it doesn’t mean they were taken, Amy could have just misplaced them, left them at the gym, or they could have gone wherever socks go” and “why would Styner take pictures of the panties if he planned to steal them?”.   I think that would have been enough for the judge to kill this charge.

But the defense attorney didn’t make the arguments, and the judge let the charges stand.  The judge, however, implied much that it’s unlikely that the inference could be used at trial where the standard of proof is much more substantial.   But the system is such that it takes very little evidence to make it to trial in the first place.

The porn charges are more interesting. I wasn’t there for the first two days of the prelim, but Styner is not being tried because of any alleged child pornography found on his school computer.  This suggests to me that there wasn’t any child pornography in the school computer at all, which is what I concluded when I looked at the charges last summer.  However, making up that claim did give the Police the opportunity to get a warrant to search Styner’s house. In the basement, they found a number of computer parts. Among them there were two hard drives that had a total of ten short videos and photos of what, to the judge, looked like child pornography.  Not having seen the videos, I’ll assume that they were.  Again, at this level of the procedures, you don’t need much in the way of proof.

The question that the defense attorney had to raise then, was whether there is any evidence that Styner knowingly possessed the files.  The hard drives were in the basement of his house, but were they his?  Given that Styner was a computer geek that question is actually quite important.  I live with a computer geek myself, and there are lots of computer parts – including hard drives – all over my house.  My husband gets them from friends who are throwing them away or from work (or nearby offices at work), meaning to do something with them.   Often times he doesn’t get to it, and there they languish.  I know that in many cases he has no idea what’s on the computer drives and that could very well be true with Styner.  But his attorney failed to make that point.

Even if those particular drives did belong to Styner – if, for example, the Prosecution could show that there were files in the hard drives that could clearly be attributed to him – there is another just as pressing question: “did Styner know he had them”?  It’s common for men to download porn, and often times they do it on big batches, rather than selecting specific pieces.  When you download files in batches or in .zip files, you may end up downloading files you never intended to get.  Unless you looked at them, you wouldn’t know what they had in them.  Again, I did not hear the defense attorney raising this point.

The Styner case shows how important a good defense attorney is – but also how any of us could be so easily railroaded by the Police and a prosecutor’s office that has no regards for justice.

Rick Styner will now have to chose between making a plea or bankrupting himself completely and going to trial.  The latter will probably involve having to discuss the intimate details of his relationship with Amy McNamara Furtado, which I’m sure he fears will embarrass his wife and adds to the pressures to plea bargain.

What is happening to him could happen to *any* of us.

**Full disclosure: I’ve met Rick Styner once, yesterday at the prelim hearing. I greeted him and told him I was sorry and that I thought the charges looked very weak. I’ve met his wife Mary Styner also once, yesterday. I’ve met Amy Furtado a number of times when she was principal at San Leandro High School. I had no particular opinion of her. The three of them were friends of SLT’s facebook page when this sage started, Amy has since defriended me.

Jun 132013

stynerHeaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned

William Congreve, The Mourning Bride

When I wrote my preliminary analysis of the criminal charges filed against San Leandro High School Teacher Richard Styner, I relied purely on the facts as reported by the media.  I have now obtained the actual court documents filed in this case.  These include the charge sheet filed by the District Attorney, and the “declaration of probable cause” on which those charges are based, executed by San Leandro Police officer Cathy Pickard.  Based on them, I can say without much difficulty that the charges against Styner are bogus and they should be dismissed.

Styner was charged on two counts: residential burglary and possession of child pornography.  He plead non-guilty to both.  He was released on his own recognizance.

The residential burglary charge is based on allegations that Rick Styner entered the home of a friend (referred to as “Jane Doe” in court documents, but known to be former San Leandro High School principal Amy McNamara Furtado), while she was out of town, using a key she had given him for emergencies.  Once there, he allegedly opened her closed dresser drawers and took pictures of her underwear and unidentified “personal”, “intimate”  items.   He also is alleged to have removed her running pants and underwear from the drawers, laid them out and photographed them.  The declaration does not indicate the alleged purpose behind this conduct.

Unfortunately for the DA and Ms. McNamara,  this conduct does not constitute a crime.  Under California law, a residential burglary is the unlawful entrance of a dwelling with the intention to commit a larceny or another felony.  Styner is not charged with larceny and, contrary to media reports, the police declaration does not state that he removed any item from McNamara’s home or that he had any intention to do so.   The police declaration also fails to allege any conduct by Styner that could constitute a felony under California law.  The SLPD had wanted the court to charge Stnyer with “disorderly conduct,” under a Penal Code provision (PC 647(J)(1)) that criminalizes the use of a camera to spy on a person – but this section is very clear that the person has to be present.   In any case, that would be a misdemeanor.

What seems likely is that the DA charged Styner with a serious felony, hoping to intimidate him into pleading to something else.  At the arraignment, the judge commented on the weakness of this particular charge.

The child pornography charge stems from a single photograph allegedly found in a folder in the school computer, also allegedly belonging to Styner (some news stories mistakenly reported that 200 photographs had been found, but only one is described on the declaration and he is only charged with one count of possession).  The photograph showed a woman posing so as to show her buttocks and part of her labia (in a pose probably similar to this one).   According to Officer Pickard the model “appears to be under the age of 18”.  Under California law, a charge of child pornography requires both that the subject of the photograph be underage and that the person in possession of the photograph know it.   Given that the Police does not claim to have identified the woman in the picture and that the only indication of the woman’s age is Officer Pickard’s appraisal of her buttocks (which begs the question of how much experience Officer Pickard has in assessing women’s posteriors), it seems unlikely that any reasonable juror would believe that Styner “knew” her to be a minor.

There is a more technical problem with this case: the chain of custody.  In order for the DA to be able to use the evidence found in the school computer, he must show that after Styner relinquished the computer to the school authorities, proper forensic procedures were followed so as to make it unlikely that anyone would have tampered with the computer files.  This includes making a copy of the hard drive and doing any analysis of its contents on the copy, not the real thing.  Neither the District nor the Police have released information as to who took control of the computer and what procedures were followed, but if a proper chain of custody is not established, the whole case will be thrown out.

I have tried to do a quick summary of the evidence in the Styner case.   The charges are weak.  They are likely to be thrown out of court, but he can expect to have to spend tens of thousands of dollars on legal fees.  Both he and his wife are teachers, he is now in unpaid leave, and regardless of what happens with the criminal charges, it’s likely that he will lose his job.  The gist of this is that these charges, however groundless, have destroyed his reputation in this community, threaten his freedom and his financial stability – as well as his family’s.

I don’t take this lightly.  If it happened to Rick Styner, a well-liked teacher and a pillar of this community, it can happen to any of us.

The San Leandro Police Department acted at best irresponsibly and at worse maliciously and criminally.  It is now incumbent upon the San Leandro City Council both to engage an independent investigator to look into what seems to be a pattern of malicious arrests and press releases by Chief Sandra Spagnoli and the SLPD.  It must also pass an immediate policy prohibiting the SLPD from issuing any press releases about any person that has not been convicted of a crime, and to provide a public accounting of the status of the cases of all subjects of prior press releases.