An attorney defending Clovis teacher Neng Yang, accused of molesting one of his second-grade students, wants him be to tried by federal prosecutors first in hopes of ensuring his safety.
Yang is facing both state and federal charges involving the alleged molestation and the video he is accused of shooting on his cell phone. He has pleaded not guilty in both Fresno County and federal court.
Attorney Margarita Martinez-Baly, who is defending Yang in Fresno County Superior Court, said that if Yang is convicted, he can live safely behind bars if sent to a federal prison. In state prison, she said, Yang would face a high likelihood that he will be attacked or killed.
She said she hopes a plea deal can be worked out so that Yang does all his time in federal prison.
The issue surfaced during a hearing Wednesday in Fresno County Superior Court. Martinez-Baly said Yang is fearful that other jail inmates might try to harm him.
In a typical courtroom scene Wednesday, shackled defendants including Yang shared the jury box waiting for their case to be called. Prisoners glared at Yang and mumbled "child molester" during his hearing.
"He really feels threatened," Martinez-Baly told Judge Jonathan Skiles.
Yang faces 45 felony counts in Superior Court of child molestation. In U.S. District Court, he faces one felony charge of producing child pornography. He could face a federal indictment as early as today.
Skiles granted Yang's request to waive his right to appear at his next court hearing.
Martinez-Baly also asked Skiles for a two-month delay in Yang's preliminary hearing, saying she needed time to properly prepare a defense. Prosecutor Rick Thomas immediately objected, saying the District Attorney's Office didn't want to lose jurisdiction over the case -- likely a nod to a behind-the-scenes tug-of-war between state and federal prosecutors. However, none of the prosecutors involved in the case would discuss the potential conflict.
Skiles agreed with Martinez-Baly and ordered Yang to return to court on April 6 for a status hearing. Until then, Yang, 44, will be held in Fresno County Jail in lieu of $4.5 million bail.
Attorney Francine Zepeda, who is defending Yang in U.S. District Court, attended the hearing but declined to comment. Martinez-Baly said the delay was a tactical move on her part to "see what happens in federal court."
In general, state prisons are more violent than federal prisons because they are overcrowded, said attorney Sara Norman of the Prison Law Office, a Berkeley-based prisoner rights group.
"Federal prisons have a reputation of being better run and safer, but they have problems, too," Norman said.
Yang was arrested Jan. 27 after evidence of repeated molestation of a Freedom Elementary School student was discovered on his cell phone, court records said. Yang has taught at Freedom since 2007. Clovis Unified School District is in the process of firing him.
Federal prosecutors were quick to file the pornography charge on Jan. 30. The District Attorney's Office filed charges two days later.
Anthony Capozzi, a former assistant U.S. attorney, said federal prosecutors have jurisdiction over Yang because they filed first.
The federal pornography charge carries a minimum of 15 years and up to 30 years in federal prison. The child molestation charges could mean life in state prison.
Capozzi said that if Yang is convicted in federal court and is sentenced to "substantial time" in federal prison, "it would be a waste of money to try him twice."
But attorney Michael Idiart, a former assistant Fresno County district attorney, said District Attorney Elizabeth Egan should leave her options open in case appellate issues arise in the federal case.
"When you have someone who is such a horrible person, why not spend your resources?" Idiart said. "A life prison sentence sends a strong message that this type of behavior won't be tolerated."