DA Stephanie Bridgett Fights Back as Shasta County District Attorney Primary Race Heats Up

Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett

It didn’t take long for Shasta County District Attorney contender Erik Jensen to blow himself out of the water at the League of Women Voters’ candidate forum earlier this month. After burnishing his conservative bona fides and mocking the LWV during his introduction, the Orange County native got tripped up on the second question, when he was forced to admit to moderator Susan Wilson that he didn’t have the slightest clue what the district attorney office’s budget was.

I do not know the budget of the DA’s office,” he stated with all the confidence of unfrozen caveman lawyer, “other than to say it is large and that there’s a great amount of waste in that office.”

Jensen is a civil attorney with no criminal trial experience. It appears that modern inventions such as the internet and social media frighten and confuse him. He finds current Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett’s use of Instagram and TikTok to disseminate public information campaigns “very troubling”.

Erik Jensen

“It’s not their money, it’s your money,” Jensen growled, claiming Bridgett had hired a public information officer for $90,000 per year at the expense of hiring much needed deputy district attorneys.

There’s a problem with Jensen’s claim. It isn’t your money supporting those Instagram and TikTok posts. It’s a grant, as Bridgett explained when the microphone came around to her. The district attorney’s office doesn’t have a public information officer. All of this is public information, had Jensen bothered googling it.

“The budget of the DA is public, so every single one of you can find it with just a couple of clicks on the internet,” Bridgett told the audience. “So, if you’re running for district attorney, it’s probably a good thing to look up.”

“Our budget is right around $13 million,” she continued. “We have several different departments, we have our attorneys, we have our bureau of investigations, and we have our crime victim assistant unit as well as our support staff.”

Bridgett said her office received grant funding for a community education specialist last year and doesn’t have a public information officer; information that’s readily available on the DA’s county web page.

“Let’s face it guys, the world is different now,” Bridgett said, defending her office’s social media outreach efforts, which includes warning youth about the dangers of fentanyl. “People live on their phone and the way to reach people is to get them engaged through social media. That is a very important thing.”

And so the night at the forum went, with each question demonstrating Bridgett’s prowess as the county’s current district attorney and Jensen’s utter lack of experience in criminal law.

“If you don’t have criminal trial experience … this is a career skilled position,” Bridgett told the forum crowd. She has spent her entire legal career in the Shasta County District Attorney’s office. “You have to have the knowledge and the history. All of that makes you a good leader. You can’t jump to the front of the line.”

“This is the problem,” Jensen retorted. “That there’s a line.”

No one likes a cutter, but it’s a necessity for Jensen, who has spent his career defending corporations from workmen’s compensation lawsuits. He has never tried a criminal case. Like most of Shasta County’s right-wing candidates financed by out-of-state son-of-a-billionaire Reverge Anselmo in the June 7 primary, Jensen’s skills and experience pale in comparison to his opponent’s. They’re using the hundreds of thousands of advertising dollars Anselmo has poured into the race to throw sand in the eyes of the electorate.

Lacking any criminal law credentials to speak of, the Jensen campaign has launched an advertising blitz on TV, radio, mail fliers and social media criticizing Bridgett’s office for its purportedly low conviction rate, alleged ethical violations and its performance on high profile cases such as the Christopher McHatton murder trial and the West Valley High School hazing/sexual assault case.

Jensen, who is running under the banner of transparency, refuses to say who among the Anselmo/Liberty Committee/Red, White and Blueprint gang recruited him to run for Shasta County DA. His campaign hasn’t replied to repeated queries from A News Café.

But one of Jensen’s de facto campaign operatives, local defense attorney Shon Northam, did respond to A News Café for this story. For the past several months, at board of supervisors meetings, on social media, and even on an RWB podcast, Northam has publicly ranted about Bridgett’s alleged “deplorable record on ethics, public safety, wasted funds, and lack of training for her prosecutors.”

Northam and the Jensen campaign’s recriminations have become increasingly strident as election day approaches; sorting through the avalanche of allegations and accusations for the truth is virtually impossible. That’s the point of mudslinging campaigns. Nevertheless, A News Café consulted with more than a half dozen local attorneys from both sides of the aisle in an attempt see if any of the muck sticks.

Local defense attorney Shon Northam with Woody Clendenen on a recent RWB podcast.

As far as A News Café can ascertain, defense attorney Shon Northam first publicly criticized DA Bridgett earlier this year at a board of supervisors meeting. Northam claimed that Bridgett’s conviction rate is abysmally low and the Anselmo/RWB/Liberty Committee crowd on hand lapped it up. The Jensen campaign has parlayed the lack of any conviction rate statistics on the DA’s county web page to bolster its claim that Bridgett’s administration is incompetent and lacks transparency.

Bridgett’s office responded to the allegation by issuing a press release stating that its conviction rate was 92.4 percent in 2021. Out of 6684 referred cases, 6180 were convicted of felonies or misdemeanors. The vast majority of these cases were decided by plea bargains. Of the approximately 10,000 criminal cases the DA considers each year, less than 1 percent go to jury trial. That figures out to roughly 100 criminal jury trials annually.

“It is important to know less than 1 percent of cases we handle end up in a jury trial,” Bridgett told A News Café via email.  “We work really hard to resolve cases before needing to take them to trial. This saves the resources of my office, the defense, the courts and the community. We are very successful in obtaining significant plea bargains, often sending offenders to prison for life or very long determinate terms.”

Northam has steadily moved the goal posts on his conviction rates and declined to provide A News Café the data he claims he’s collected from the Shasta County Superior Court. “In 2018 and 2019, the actual conviction rate is 20 percent when using the ‘most serious charge’ metric,” he said in an email with no supporting evidence or context.

Bridgett claims that during her five years in office, the jury trial conviction rate has averaged 71 percent. In 2021, thanks to COVID, Bridgett said there were just 52 criminal jury trials, with a conviction rate of 60 percent, 31 convictions out of 52 cases.

The best data available on conviction rates in California comes from the Judicial Council of California’s annual Statewide Caseload Data reports. In fiscal 2018-19, there were 96 criminal trials by jury in Shasta County, including 66 felony trials and 28 misdemeanor trials. In fiscal 2019-20, the last year for which data is currently available, there were 87 jury trials, including 68 felony trials and 17 misdemeanor trials.

The state reports don’t break down the jury trial results independently from plea bargains. In fiscal 2018-19, out of 1869 defendants charged with a felony in Shasta County, 1361 were convicted of felonies and 265 were convicted of misdemeanors, for a conviction rate of 87 percent. In fiscal 2019-20, out of 1826 defendants charged with a felony, 1193 were convicted of felonies and 329 were convicted of misdemeanors, for a conviction rate of 83 percent.

“While our overall conviction rate, with pleas and trials, is very high, jury trials naturally have a lower conviction rate,” Bridgett said. “We must obtain a unanimous decision of 12 members of our community on a case where the two sides have not been able to come to an agreement in order to resolve via a plea bargain.”

“I maintain my position that we should not, as prosecutors, have our sole focus be on convictions,” Bridgett said. “Our sole focus is to see that justice is done, one case at a time.”

Bridgett said focusing solely on the jury trial conviction rate can lead to cherry picking only the slam-dunk cases.

“That’s unethical and I’ll never do it,” she said.

According to the American Prosecutors Research Institute, it’s typical for both political campaigns and the media covering those campaigns to focus on conviction rates and high-profile cases during election season, even though neither element is necessarily a good measure of the overall performance of any given district attorney’s office.

“Too often, the effectiveness of prosecutors is judged on the basis of conviction rates, plea bargains, or the outcome of a single high-profile case,” the institute reported in 2007. “Are these the results most prosecutors would look to as the sole indicators of effectiveness? Probably not. Yet, these are the very indicators of interest for so many.”

The report was titled, “Do Lower Conviction Rates Mean Prosecutors’ Officers Are Performing Poorly?” The answer was not necessarily. During the past several decades, the process of “doing justice” has evolved. Holding offenders accountable is no longer the district attorney’s singular mission. There has been a movement toward “community prosecution” in which prosecutors partner with community groups to “resolve the underlying problems that contribute to crime.”

Along with this evolution and the increasing digitization of the legal system, a debate has arisen on how to best measure the effectiveness of the district attorney’s office. Read more about this ongoing discussion in this recent study by Stanford. Meanwhile, this company offers a suite of management tools for prosecutors that range from measuring capacity and efficiency, community safety and wellbeing, and fairness and justice.

On the other hand, Northam, who in 2015 was put on probation by the state bar for two years for not keeping up with his legal education requirements, claims no such debate is taking place.

“There is no debate in the legal field regarding trial conviction rates as a measure of a DA’s performance,” he replied via email. “I am not sure who gave you that information but [it] sounds like someone who has an agenda and neither knows nor practices criminal law.”

Jensen campaign “Brady Bunch” ad satirizes alleged ethical violations by Shasta County deputy district attorneys.

One Jensen campaign advertisement that’s particularly effective is a 30-second video called the Brady Bunch. It’s based on a list of nine alleged violations of the Brady Rule by Bridgett’s office that Northam originally posted on Facebook. These alleged violations form the core of the Jensen campaign’s claim that Bridgett is corrupt. It’s unclear how many of the assertions are true, if any.

The Brady Rule is based on the 1963 Brady vs. Maryland U.S. Supreme Court decision that requires prosecutors to turn over materially exculpatory evidence to the defense. Prosecutors are held accountable by Brady even if they had no knowledge the evidence was being withheld by, for example, overzealous members of law enforcement. Northam’s list and the Brady Bunch video imply that various deputy district attorneys under Bridgett have purposely withheld evidence to mislead juries.

But as Northam himself admitted on a recent Red, White and Blueprint podcast, some of the cases he listed aren’t Brady violations at all. According to attorneys from both sides of the aisle, none of the alleged Brady violations listed involved deputy district attorneys deliberately withholding evidence, as Northam and the Jensen campaign claim.

“My opposition is using a scare tactic when discussing Brady,” Bridgett said. “He and his supporters are attempting to smear our credibility by making it look like we’re deliberately and purposely withholding information that shows a defendant is innocent. I’m aware of no situation where one of my deputies engaged in that type of egregious and unethical behavior.”

According to Shasta County Senior Deputy District Attorney Emily Mees, none of the cases listed by Northam involved deputy district attorneys willfully withholding evidence.

“Mr. Northam’s list of cases, which he claims are all Brady violations—yet he also admitted recently on a Red, White and Blueprint podcast that they are not all Brady violations—includes no cases where the attorney intentionally withheld anything,” she said via email.

According to one source who works on the defense side of the aisle and asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation, Northam has not prevailed on any of the Brady violations he has filed against Bridgett’s administration.

Mees took issue with Northam’s increasingly raucous tirades against the district attorney’s office.

“Mr. Northam’s description of the DA’s office as being corrupt, undertrained and in a state of disarray is untrue,” she said. “The attorneys in the office understand their obligations, are thoroughly trained in their ethical responsibilities, and uphold those responsibilities. They are also human and make mistakes … but Mr. Northam cannot point to a single instance where any attorney in our office intentionally withheld evidence in an effort to ‘cheat’ as he claims,” Mees said.

Mees took particular umbrage at Northam’s claims that deputy district attorneys aren’t properly trained.

“As the misdemeanor supervisor, I am responsible for initial training when attorneys join the office,” Mees said. “Not only do attorneys watch webinars and attend in-person trainings with the California District Attorney Association regularly but I also speak with every one of them personally on how to handle their cases and discovery. This is also how I know that our attorneys would never intentionally withhold discovery because if they have a question they ask.”

Veteran defense attorney Joe Gazzigli, who has practiced law in Shasta County for more than 35 years, agreed that Bridgett’s office is above board. He’s gone to court against Bridgett and her deputy DAs hundreds of times.

“At no time have I had any experience with DA Bridgett or her deputies that was anything other than honorable and orderly and always aimed at the fair administration of justice in this county,” Gazzigli said. “For anyone else to suggest otherwise is simply untrue and unfounded. I have no personal knowledge of her office’s winning percentage and I would leave those comments, if any, to judges in this county who I also admire and respect.”

Gazzigli, who began his legal career as a prosecutor in Los Angeles before relocating here decades ago, said it’s absurd to believe a civil attorney with Jensen’s lack of criminal law experience can cut to the front of line and do a better job than Bridgett, who has served in the DA’s office nearly 20 years.

“Lawyers generally specialize on one area of the law because in its totality California law cannot be mastered by one lawyer given the number of laws on the books,” Gazzigli said. “It would be impossible for every lawyer to be equally knowledgeable about all aspects of the law. Someone who has years upon years of experience in criminal law as DA Bridgett does could not possibly be replaced by someone else who has never practiced criminal law or participated or prepared for a criminal trial or tried a criminal case or had to consider the fate of a defendant verses the public as the law prescribes.”

On the other hand, Northam said, “Practical experience is not necessary to become the elected DA or even a deputy district attorney.” For an example, he pointed to one of Bridgett’s deputies, who, like Jensen, comes from the workmen’s compensation field and has been appointed to high-level cases. Yet in the very next sentence, Northam undermined his own argument when he claimed the same attorney has violated the Brady Rule three times.

Christopher McHatton was convicted of second-degree murder, but the conviction was overturned on appeal.

Shortly after the LWV forum, Jensen posted the following message on his campaign’s Facebook page:

“As promised in my closing statement from last night’s forum, please see the attached document regarding the McHatton murder case.”

He was referring to the murder trial of Christopher McHatton.

“We have a case right now that’s being retried because there was a finding by an appellate court judge that a Chief Deputy District Attorney in this county misled the jury,” Jensen said at the forum. “That’s a tremendous cost to the taxpayers.”

Bridgett countered that Jensen was misleading the audience.

“If you know the truth about that case that was just mentioned and read the entire opinion and know about the case, characterizing it that way is just not honest,” Bridgett said. “It’s just not.”

Seeking a gotcha moment, Jensen posted the entire case file for the McHatton appeal on his Facebook page the next morning. For anyone who read the decision, he ended up proving Bridgett’s point.

In the wee hours of the morning on July 23, 2019, after a night spent doing methamphetamine with his gay friend Steve Johnson in a shed on the property of local political gadfly Russel Hunt, McHatton awoke to find Johnson orally copulating him.

Shocked by the unwanted sexual advance—legally, performing nonforcible oral copulation on an unconscious person is considered felonious sexual assault—McHatton punched Johnson. Johnson punched him back. A scuffle ensued inside the shed. Johnson picked up a four-by-four and swung it at McHatton like a club. McHatton grabbed a nearby hammer and struck Johnson multiple times in the head, fatally injuring him.

A jury found McHatton guilty of second-degree murder. But an appellate court dismissed the verdict after ruling that the “prosecution’s argument confused and misled the jury that the defendant’s claim of provocation was based on Johnson’s sexual orientation and a mere sexual advance, neither of which was sufficient provocation to reduce murder to manslaughter.”

Translation: there’s a legally significant difference between a sexual advance and a sexual assault, even if the sexual assault consists of nonforcible oral copulation on an unconscious person. The act is considered a felony and a provocation that can reduce a second-degree murder charge to a charge of “voluntary manslaughter in the heat of passion.”

At trial, prosecutors were concerned McHatton was mounting a “gay panic” defense, which California banned in 2014.

Assuming McHatton didn’t know Johnson was gay until he woke up to find Johnson orally copulating him, the law prohibits McHatton from using his sudden discovery of Johnson’s sexual orientation as legal cause for self-defense. The prosecution asked for special instructions to that effect be given to the jury as required by the gay panic law and the judge obliged.

But as the trial revealed, McHatton knew Johnson was gay days before he bashed his head in with a hammer. At trial, McHatton testified that he didn’t pick up the hammer until Johnson threatened him with the four-by-four. He didn’t panic and kill Johnson because he was gay per se. But the appellate court ruled that the confusion about whether performing nonforcible oral copulation on an unconscious person is a sexual advance or a sexual assault—it is legally sexual assault and a provocation for self-defense—plausibly prevented the jury from finding McHatton guilty on the lesser charge of manslaughter in the heat of passion.

In short, McHatton can’t claim he killed Johnson in self-defense because Johnson was gay, but he can claim self-defense because Johnson sexually assaulted him.

This ambiguity wasn’t deliberately introduced into the case by the prosecutor to railroad McHatton as the Jensen campaign contends. It was the direct consequence of new law running up against existing law. It’s the kind of nuance that makes the practice of criminal law intensely interesting, even when the subject matter is so dire.

Jensen has no criminal law experience and consequently no sense of these nuances. He rips one phrase out of context from the McHatton appeal, “the prosecution’s argument confused and misled the jury,” and asserts the prosecutor, not the argument, deliberately misled the jury.

But that’s not what the court said.

“The court of appeal disagreed with our Superior Court Judge giving of this instruction, and ultimately ruled that it undercut Mr. McHatton’s defense and made it more difficult for him to argue self-defense,” Bridgett said. “The court of appeal exists to be a check on trial courts and make sure everyone’s rights are protected.  We respect their decision and are prepared to retry Mr. McHatton.”

That’s how the law is supposed to work.

West Valley High School in Cottonwood.

However, sometimes the law doesn’t work like it’s supposed to. Consider the West Valley High School hazing/sexual assault case.

In November, 2020, A News Café wrote of alleged hazing and sexual assault perpetrated by senior players of the West Valley High School football team on younger players. Ultimately, four younger players claimed they’d been forced to participate in humiliating rituals in order to play varsity ball. In some cases, the seniors held the boys down and allegedly attempted to ram a section of ¾” PVC pipe with a tennis ball taped to the end up their rectums.

The victims were all clothed, and at least two of the boys claimed early on that they managed to avoid being anally penetrated by the so-called PIYA stick by clenching their butt cheeks. When one parent reported the sexual assault that was inflicted upon his son to a WVHS administrator, the administrator broke the law that requires school officials to immediately report sexual assault on a student directly to the police. Instead, he contacted 33-year veteran head football coach Greg Grandell. According to a lawsuit filed against the school and the coaches, Grandell launched a cover-up of the incident.

As A News Café reported in March 2021, PIYA turned out to be a systematic hazing ritual introduced to the team by assistant coach Jim Vert 20 years prior, with Grandell’s welcome consent.

Grandell and Vert have resigned, but why aren’t the coaches, WVHS Principal Joshua Mason, Superintendent Victor Hopper and a significant portion of the 2020-21 WVHS football team in the dock for allegedly aiding, abetting and covering up the sexual assault of four minor boys?

Good question. The answer?

All of the aforementioned parties circled the wagons. The four plaintiffs have filed a civil suit against the school administration, the coaching staff and the players involved, but thanks to numerous credible threats of physical arm, all four students were forced to transfer and eventually ended up finishing out their high school experience via a combination of homeschooling, continuation school and transfers to different high schools. In transition they suffered declining grades, emotional instability, depression, and feelings of anxiety, embarrassment, unease, and stress.

Now, at least two mothers of the victims have joined the Jensen camp, claiming in a video that their boys are being victimized again, this time by Stephanie Bridgett, who so far hasn’t filed charges in the two-year-old case. One mother claims a deputy district attorney told her the DA’s not filing charges because there’s a cultural mentality at WVHS, that there are too many people involved to single out individual culprits, and today’s perpetrators of hazing were yesterday’s victims.

With all due respect to the victims and their families, those are all legitimate roadblocks preventing the prosecution of the WVHS hazing/sexual assault case. One mother cites a hazing/sexual assault case that has gone to trial in Damascus, Maryland. That case has two important differences compared to WVHS: Anal penetration occurred (with a broomstick), and the assaults were reported almost immediately to the police.

Because the perpetrators were juveniles, the outcome of the case and whether they were punished remains unknown.

There’s no question the Shasta County District Attorney’s office has been tight-lipped about the WVHS case. There has been a lack of transparency. During the course of covering the West Valley hazing story, A News Café contacted the DA’s office numerous times and received no comment on the case.

“All juvenile cases, including this one, are confidential by law which prevents me from commenting on it,” Bridgett offered by way of explanation. “As I have indicated previously, if additional information comes to light, we are always willing to re-visit and re-evaluate the case.”

In other words, some of the adults in the WVHS community need to step up if a criminal complaint is going to be filed. If that comes to pass, it’s going to get ugly, and you’re going to want an experienced district attorney running the show.

Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett speaks at a Shingletown forum.

“Meeting with a victim and their family to let them know we will not be proceeding on a case is one of the most difficult things we do,” Bridgett said. “We understand how emotional it is for them and we would never do anything to diminish their feelings. However, we must make our decisions, not based on emotion, but on the law, our ethical duties and what is justice. Sometimes this means we do not file a case, a decision we do not take lightly.”

It’s understandable that the mothers of the alleged West Valley High School victims are upset that Bridgett has so far failed to file charges. But besides Northam, no one else from the legal community is running around with their hair on fire complaining about what a rotten district attorney Stephanie Bridgett is. A News Café asked Northam what his winning rate is as a defense attorney.

“My trial stats are irrelevant, though my clients enjoy tremendous success and, as such, my peers hold me in high-esteem,” Northam said. “But this election is not about me. … This election is about Shasta County electing an honorable official.”

The above ellipsis replaces yet another blast of venom from Northam that A News Café can’t validate at this time.

A News Café interviewed more than a half-dozen local attorneys on both sides of the aisle for this story. All of them expressed respect for Bridgett and Northam. They also agreed Northam has undergone a profound change since becoming involved in the campaign to unseat DA Bridgett.

“Until about six months ago, Mr. Northam never expressed any of these concerns,” Mees said. Bridgett’s office maintains an “open-file” policy; defense attorneys are welcome to come in at any time to look at the evidence or air complaints. Northam hasn’t done so.

“We have always had a good relationship and he was aware that at any point in time if he had concerns about the office or the way the office was being run that Stephanie [Bridgett] would have been more than happy to have a meeting with him to discuss any issues that he has,” Mees said. “Our office has always had a very good relationship with defense bar, unlike some other District Attorney’s Offices in the state.”

“I have always had a very good relationship with Mr. Northam,” Bridgett said. “We have always gotten along very well personally and professionally. We have handled cases with each other without issue. I’ve never known him, until now, to be one to personally attack another person’s ethics. I’ve known him for many years, he knows how to get in touch with me, yet he has never raised any of these issues with me until this election.

“I do not know what sparked this,” she continued. “I certainly would have been happy to sit down and discuss any of these issues with him. As professionals, I would have expected him to reach out to me. I am very disappointed that he did not.”

If you value journalist RV Scheide’s reporting and commentary, please consider a contribution to A News Cafe. Thank you!

R.V. Scheide

R.V. Scheide is an award-winning journalist who has covered news, politics, music, arts and culture in Northern California for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in the Tenderloin Times, Sacramento News & Review, Reno News & Review, Chico News & Review, North Bay Bohemian, San Jose Metro, SF Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, Alternet, Boston Phoenix, Creative Loafing and Counterpunch, among many other publications. His honors include winning the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s Freedom of Information Act and best columnist awards as well as best commentary from the Society of Professional Journalists, California chapter. Mr. Scheide welcomes your comments and story tips. Contact him at RVScheide@anewscafe.com..

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