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Juror Believes Jacobs’ Actions Pushed Penn Over the Edge

Times Staff Writer

To the jurors who cleared Sagon Penn of the most serious charges against him, Penn was a polite young man who, in a moment of bewilderment and terror, violently defended himself from a police attack that provoked a needless tragedy.

That, at least, is the account provided by juror Sally Naley, 36, the daughter of a retired Oakland police sergeant. She spoke at length Thursday about the jury’s 26 arduous days of deliberation.

“There was, early on, a general consensus that people thought he wasn’t guilty of murder,” Naley said of Penn, 24. “To me, none of it was murder. It was just a bad situation that got worse, tragically, and ended with somebody losing their life.”

According to Naley, who lives in Normal Heights and works as a clerk for a photo-finishing firm in Bay Park, the jurors’ consensus broke down on the question of whether Penn overreacted to conduct by Police Agent Donovan Jacobs that many on the jury viewed as inflammatory.

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“There was a general feeling Jacobs handled the whole thing very badly,” she said. “Where it differed was if (Penn) had the right to shoot him.”

Holdout jurors who viewed Penn’s response as excessive kept the jury from voting unanimously to acquit him of a series of lesser charges, including manslaughter and assault, she said. “When he drew the gun, people thought he shouldn’t go to that extreme,” she said. But Naley argued that Penn was acting in self-defense. “To me, the escalation started when Jacobs started whacking at him,” she said.

Most of the jurors--whose ages ranged from 21 to 47--chose not to talk with reporters about the case Thursday, though they met privately with defense attorney Milton J. Silverman and prosecutor Michael Carpenter after announcing their verdicts.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Ben W. Hamrick had told the jurors they were welcome to discuss the verdicts with the media. But he warned them in court that, if they chose to speak with reporters, they “will probably be faced with accusations of racial bigotry,” among other possible accusations.

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Afterward, the jurors fled the downtown courthouse, running a gantlet of still and television cameras, some holding up papers to shield their faces.

Jury foreman Douglas Bernd, 39, deflected most questions as reporters raced him to his car.

“I’m very, very tired, and right now I really have no comment,” he said. Someone asked if he would be willing to serve on a jury again. “Most definitely,” Bernd replied. “It’s a job that has to be done, even though it might be distasteful.”

Several jurors apparently were irritated by news accounts during the pre-trial screening of potential jury panelists--the last time, under Hamrick’s strict orders, that they were permitted to read news stories or watch television reports about the case.

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“We were scared to death of you guys--that you’re not going to get anything straight--because of what before the trial you quoted about us,” juror Troy Axe, 26, said as she declined a telephone interview.

Axe said she was discouraged from talking with reporters by Hamrick’s courtroom comments. “From what the judge said, I don’t want to put myself in any position to embarrass myself or to embarrass anyone else,” she said.

According to Naley, jurors generally accepted the picture of Jacobs painted by Silverman--that of an aggressive police officer capable of using excessive force and racist language, insistent that people he stopped on the street do as he say, and do it with no questions asked.

Carpenter, by contrast, sought to paint a picture of Jacobs as an exemplary officer. Naley, whose father was a policeman for 25 years, was not convinced.

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“He didn’t act in a professional way,” Naley said of Jacobs, who was shot by Penn as they wrestled over Police Agent Thomas Riggs’ weapon, and then was run over with his own patrol car as Penn fled the scene of the shootings. “He let it get out of hand. He should have cooled it down from the very beginning, and he didn’t. I would say he’s the one who started it.”

True to her birthright, Naley remains a supporter of police.

“I have faith in the Police Department,” said the 15-year San Diego resident. “I think they have a tough job, and they do the best they can. But every once in awhile egos get into it.”

She said she would not want to see Jacobs removed from the San Diego police force. “He made a mistake. I think he let his emotions go first. Obviously he has suffered,” she said.

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Near the start of the jury’s discussions, two black jurors--Vernell Hardy, 37, who had a baby early in the deliberations, and Kimberly McGee, 29--disabused other jurors of the notion that San Diego police are above getting into violent conflict with black citizens, according to Naley.

“They were saying it does happen--that cops do wrong things in Southeast San Diego,” Naley said. She said the black jurors added: “Don’t think it never happens, because it does. . . .”

Penn, meantime, appeared to jurors as an innocent young man caught up in a confrontation not of his own making, Naley said.

“He just didn’t know what was going on from the beginning,” she said. “To me he wasn’t a bad kid. He’d just come from taking a ride in the park. Nobody was using any drugs. Nobody was using any alcohol, which to me, in this day and age, is rare for young kids.”

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The jury’s deliberations on a complex set of more than 20 possible verdicts were generally convivial, according to Naley. Her colleagues, she recalled, joined in a warm chorus of “Happy Birthday” when she turned 36 last week.

The jurors approached their task pragmatically--deciding, for instance, that it was silly to vote by secret ballot as they considered their verdicts, count by count. Instead, Naley said, they simply raised their hands to indicate their inclinations.

The good feelings faced their most serious strains when Hamrick ordered the jurors sequestered at the Sheraton Harbor Island East hotel on June 5, midway through the deliberations.

“Everybody was mad,” Naley said. “They didn’t want to be sequestered. They had all these personal things to take care of.” In a surprising change of mind, Hamrick ended the sequestration after just one weekend, when Hardy and McGee threatened to quit unless they were able to go home each night after deliberations.

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Jurors were glad to get a chance to reconsider their early verdict--announced just four days into the deliberations--holding Penn guilty of assault with a deadly weapon for running Jacobs over with his patrol car. Hardy refused to affirm her guilty vote when Hamrick, Carpenter and Silverman came to her hospital room the day after her son was born, forcing the judge to discard the verdict.

“That was one of the first things we worked on,” Naley recalled. “I don’t think we analyzed the law to the letter. It just kind of got snowed.”

When the jury was polled Thursday for its final verdict on the charge, the vote was 8-4 for acquittal. Naley said several jurors had reversed their votes on the charge after reconsidering whether Penn showed an intent to harm Jacobs, as a conviction would have required.

The last count to hang up the jury was the charge of attempted murder against Penn for shooting at Sarah Pina-Ruiz, the civilian ride-along who cowered in Riggs’ car as a planned evening of observation turned into a night of death. Penn shot twice at her, wounding her in the arm, side, abdomen and back.

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The jury voted, 11-1, to acquit Penn of a charge of attempted murder in that shooting. “Most people felt there was no time for the heat of passion to subside,” Naley said, explaining the 11 votes to acquit. A lone juror--she declined to name the person--disagreed, arguing that there was no way Penn should have perceived Pina-Ruiz as a threat.

Jurors were dubious of Pina-Ruiz’s testimony about the shooting of Jacobs, Naley said. Alone among the witnesses in the months-long trial, she testified that Penn, wrestling with Jacobs, grabbed the officer’s gun and coolly walked it up his chest before shooting him once in the neck.

“She was too calm. It was too rehearsed, too matter-of-fact,” Naley said. She said she suspected that Pina-Ruiz designed her testimony, in part, to help solidify her civil damage suit against Penn and the Police Department.

So how was Jacobs shot? Naley said she believed the testimony of defense witnesses, who said Jacobs kicked the gun as he struggled with Penn. Penn had his finger on the trigger, she is convinced, but he didn’t necessarily intend to fire.

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It’s a theory Naley tested in the jury room.

“I pulled that trigger,” she said, “and it doesn’t take anything at all for it to go off if your finger’s in that thing.”


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