He cold-cocked a woman, but ‘nice’ man kept his job

The Tribune (SLO) - - Front Page -

If ever there were an openand-shut crim­i­nal case, the Peo­ple v. Christo­pher Matthew Ol­cott seemed to qual­ify.

A video played for the jury clearly showed Ol­cott el­bow­ing a young woman in a blow that knocked her un­con­scious­ness, then re­peat­edly punch­ing her com­pan­ion at the bar — for no ap­par­ent rea­son other than some ap­pallingly ju­ve­nile ef­fort to de­fend his space.

Yet a jury failed to find Ol­cott, 39, guilty of a felony charge of bat­tery. It dead­locked 7-5 in fa­vor of guilt.

The bar­room beat­down at Mr. Rick’s hap­pened al­most three years ago, but it didn’t pro­voke pub­lic out­rage un­til a cou­ple of weeks ago, when the video was leaked to the me­dia — and it was learned that Ol­cott was still work­ing as a build­ing in­spec­tor with the city of San Luis Obispo. (He’s since been placed on paid leave while the city con­ducts its own in­ves­ti­ga­tion.)

The video has been viewed nearly 250,000 times and has elicited hun­dreds of com­ments, al­most all of them agree­ing: The guy is guilty.

We con­cur. We rarely crit­i­cize jury ver­dicts — af­ter all, we aren’t privy to all that goes on

in the court­room — but this is one time when the video ev­i­dence speaks for it­self.

So how could five jurors decide oth­er­wise?

We got in touch with one ju­ror who of­fered his per­spec­tive. (If other jurors would like to add their com­ments, please reach out to us.)

John Backer was among the seven who voted to con­vict Ol­cott of felony as­sault; he calls the out­come of the case a “tri­umph over com­mon sense.”

Backer says a mi­nor­ity of jury mem­bers had the at­ti­tude that a “nice young man” like Ol­cott couldn’t be guilty.

The de­fense pre­sented Ol­cott as a “good, clean-cut, hard­work­ing pro­fes­sional with a fam­ily — as op­posed to two peo­ple who don’t come from this area and shouldn’t have come to this place in the first place,” said Backer.

Backer didn’t hear any jurors make overtly racist com­ments about vic­tims Camille Chavez, who is Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can, or Isaac McCor­mack, who is part Na­tive Amer­i­can and Mex­i­can.

But he be­lieves race played a role. “Ob­vi­ously, (there) was an un­der­cur­rent of eco­nomic and racial bias pushed into the trial,” Backer said. “It was re­flected in the de­lib­er­a­tions of the jury.”

Chavez be­lieves so, too. She told re­porter Nick­Wil­son that an in­ves­ti­ga­tor told her one of the jurors said, “Why should he (Ol­cott) lose his job for two Mex­i­cans in a bar?”

Backer con­firmed jurors were con­cerned that Ol­cott — the “nice young man” — could lose his job, even though they had been in­structed that they were only to con­sider guilt or in­no­cence — not the pos­si­ble con­se­quences of a ver­dict.

Once the jury be­gan de­lib­er­at­ing, it quickly be­came clear that “it wasn’t go­ing to come to a con­clu­sion,” Backer said.

One ju­ror had her mind made up from the out­set. She said, in ef­fect: “I’m not go­ing to vote to con­vict him. No­body can change my mind..”

It’s ob­vi­ous that Ilan FunkeBilu — a highly skilled de­fense at­tor­ney — did an ex­cel­lent job of over­com­ing what ap­pears to be in­sur­mount­able ev­i­dence against his client, at least in the minds of some jurors.

He ar­gued the vic­tims were drunk and didn’t know what they were do­ing. And he broke down the video, frame by frame, in a way that could make it ap­pear that Camille Chavez was the ag­gres­sor and the “nice young man” was de­fend­ing him­self. Un­be­liev­able, right? Any­one view­ing the video can see that Ol­cott was the ag­gres­sor; Chavez bumped him with her hip only in re­sponse to his re­peated in­cur­sions on her space.

The video also makes it clear that the en­tire in­ci­dent could have been avoided had Ol­cott sim­ply moved for­ward a few steps — there was plenty of space for him to do that. Yet when that is­sue was raised in the jury room. Backer said, a re­sponse was: “Why should he have to move for them?”

Again, un­be­liev­able.

We hope this jury, which Backer de­scribes as mostly older, white and con­ser­va­tive, isn’t typ­i­cal for San Luis Obispo County. If it is, we all should have se­ri­ous con­cerns about whether peo­ple of color can get jus­tice in our com­mu­nity.

And given this mind-bog­gling out­come, why in the world didn’t District At­tor­ney Dan Dow agree to retry it, rather than set­tle for a guilty plea to a lesser, mis­de­meanor charge that earned Ol­cott a mere 60 days in jail?

Dow told The Tri­bune that the mis­de­meanor plea re­sulted in a pun­ish­ment “sub­stan­tially sim­i­lar” to what he would have got­ten for a felony — even though a felony con­vic­tion can be pun­ished by two to four years be­hind bars. On top of that, the city would have more cause to fire Ol­cott if he had been con­victed of a felony.

Backer, who de­scribes him­self as a rel­a­tively con­ser­va­tive per­son, was left dis­il­lu­sioned by the ex­pe­ri­ence.

“If we go back and look at the law — the ways it’s writ­ten — I think it’s a bad out­come.”

He be­lieves Ol­cott should lose his job with the city.

“A build­ing in­spec­tor is a per­son you’re sup­posed to let into your house,” he said. “It’s not ap­pro­pri­ate for a guy who acted like that to be let into my house. Why would you do that?”

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