One man suspected of taking part in last month’s crossfire shooting death of 9-year-old Janessa Ramirez has been released from Fresno County Jail, while the man accused of firing the fatal bullet was arraigned in Fresno County Superior Court on Tuesday.
Isaac Stafford, 19, was released from jail Monday night, and his lawyer said he had no involvement in the shooting incident that led to Janessa’s death. He has no convictions, according to Fresno County Superior Court records.
District Attorney Lisa A. Smittcamp and Assistant District Attorney Stephen Wright both said the investigation is ongoing and they couldn’t comment further. Fresno police officials had no comment Tuesday.
In Fresno County Superior Court, Brian Lorrice Cooks, 22, pleaded not guilty in his arraignment. Judge James Kelley set his bail at $2.2 million. He remains in Fresno County Jail. His next hearing was set for Feb. 11.
The case against Cooks is a murder charge without a death penalty or special circumstance attached. Cooks only said “no” when asked by the judge if he intended to hire a lawyer.
Scott Baly, a public defender, said he has no police reports in the case. He said Cooks seems to be in a “state of shock.”
Cooks was sentenced to 16 months in prison in 2013 after pleading no contest to possession of a sawed-off shotgun. He also pleaded no contest in a burglary and concealed weapons case in 2013.
Defense lawyer Eric Green said he will represent Stafford if the case moves forward, but he thinks no case exists yet.
“No charges have been filed and the case has been sent back to the police department for further investigation,” Green said. “He (Stafford) is available to me if and when I need him.”
Green said Stafford told him he was unarmed, didn’t shoot anybody and did not want anyone shot. He said his client is “a victim” in this case, too.
“My client did not have a gun,” he said. “There was an effort to shoot him and it failed, and this little girl, unfortunately, was killed.”
Conversely, he said, Cooks “wanted to shoot my client for something that happened three or four years ago.”
On Jan. 18, police reported last week that Cooks was shot at from a passing car about 8:40 p.m. while riding his skateboard near Marks and Clinton avenues. He crouched behind another vehicle and managed to fire one shot before his gun jammed. Police say rounds from a gun were found in the car Cooks was crouching behind.
The shot Cooks fired traveled 270 yards, striking Janessa in the stomach while her mother and grandmother chatted with friends outside a small strip mall. Police said Friday that four shots were fired at Cooks. Stafford admitted to being in a passing car at the time of the gunfire exchange, police said.
“If charges are filed based on the state of the evidence as I know it right now, I would love to take it to trial because I don’t think the district attorney can get a conviction (on Stafford) the way it is now, and that’s why I think they sent it back to the police department for further investigation,” Green said.
Stafford, 19, was arrested Thursday in Gilroy. He left the Fresno County Jail about 6:30 p.m. Monday. Under California law, defendants can be kept only for 48 hours in custody before they must be released if charges are not filed (weekends and holidays are exempt). He graduated from Washington Union High School last year and was a starter on the school’s Central Section-championship basketball team as a senior.
The feud between Cooks and Stafford dates back to the arrest and conviction of Deandre Robinson, Cooks’ friend. Robinson was sentenced to 16 years in prison for firing into a Fresno home. On social media Cooks and others pointed to Stafford as a “snitch” in the case.
Jeff Hammerschmidt, a Fresno defense lawyer who spent 18 months as the Fresno County District Attorney’s felony filing prosecutor, said it’s sometimes necessary — and advisable — to wait to file a case if the evidence is not initially strong enough.
“The district attorney’s office views the case differently than a police agency does,” he said. “A police agency views it from a probable cause to arrest and a belief that a person is guilty; the district attorney’s office looks at it as with the evidence we have now, can we prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
If the district attorney’s office goes ahead with a case that doesn’t have strong enough evidence and the case goes to trial, prosecutors risk a not-guilty verdict and wouldn’t be able to prosecute a second time under double jeopardy rules.
Hammerschmidt recalled that when he prosecuted the Ewell murder case in the late 1990s, the district attorney’s office took three years before filing charges even after three requests by the sheriff’s office to bring murder charges against Dana Ewell. Ewell was convicted in 1998 of killing his parents and sister in 1992. He received three life sentences.
“It’s highly unusual to go that long in a case where you know who the suspects are this early in the investigation, but there is no statute of limitations on murder,” Hammerschmidt said.
The Ewell case was much more complex than Janessa’s murder, and Hammerschmidt doesn’t expect it to take more than a few months before a case is filed against Stafford, perhaps much sooner, he said.
“From a prosecutor’s standpoint, it’s very difficult to make the decision to allow a suspect to be released if you think the person is guilty, even if you think it’s the right thing to do,” Hammerschmidt said. “But you have to know that you have the evidence you need to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Fresno defense lawyer Charles Magill said building evidence in this type of case sometimes takes time and additional investigation, which occasionally requires a suspect to go free. But, it’s likely that police will eventually uncover witnesses or other evidence that makes a stronger connection to Stafford in the case and re-arrest him, Magill said.
It’s important in high-profile cases to be methodical, he said. Potentially, Magill said, Stafford and Cooks could be tried separately. Trying Stafford at the same time as Cooks could significantly complicate the case, since both men will likely testify against each other.
“They have the shooter, they have him in the process and they don’t need Stafford because all he does is complicate the evidence they have against Cooks,” Magill said. “By trying the two of them together, they can lose on both counts by them pointing the finger at each other.”