7 Days 

Oakland's Riders civil settlement clears the way for Vernon Joseph; meanwhile, Richmond hits a speed bump on the way to the spelling bee.

Odd man out: Of the nearly $11 million the city of Oakland is paying to settle the Riders class action lawsuit, not one penny will go to the man who spent the most time behind bars for a possibly bogus bust. Vernon Joseph served more than five years after being arrested in 1995 by Officer Frank "Choker" Vazquez for being a felon in possession of a firearm, a Tec-9 to be exact (see "Bum Rap," November 6, 2002). Joseph insisted on his innocence after his arrest, and the would-be rapper's producer belatedly confessed that the gun belonged to him after a jury convicted Joseph based on Vazquez' testimony. (The judge in this case, however, deemed the confession spurious.) Of course, the bust happened long before anyone had ever heard of the Riders, a clique of allegedly rogue West Oakland cops working the graveyard shift.

In exchange for his freedom, Joseph waived his right to sue the city. Considering the amount of time he spent in prison, he would arguably stand to win more money than any other individual Riders accuser. So he sued anyway, filing a case separate from the class action handled by East Bay attorneys John Burris and Jim Chanin. According to Joseph's lawyer, James LeBow, the recent settlement clears the way for the court to focus on his client's case. He plans to depose prosecutors and public defenders and then file a motion to invalidate Joseph's agreement to waive his right to sue.

But city barristers sound confident they will prevail. Not only did Joseph sign away his rights, says Randolph Hall, chief assistant city attorney, but after reviewing the original case, city reps feel there was sufficient corroboration for his arrest and subsequent conviction. That's somewhat surprising, since Vazquez, who is now on the lam, was the prosecution's star witness -- and the only one who allegedly saw Joseph with the gat. While the fugitive Rider's partner confirmed key portions of Vazquez' testimony, he contradicted other parts. And, to make matters even more sketchy, that partner was none other than Officer Eric Richholt, who recently pleaded no contest to soliciting a hooker -- actually an undercover cop -- while he was on duty. City attorneys, however, don't think any of those facts diminishes the substance of the case against Joseph. When asked by a legal reporter how much he expected the city to pay Joseph, City Attorney John Russo curtly replied, "Nothing." -- Will Harper

Richmond fails second grade: It's rare when Richmond makes national news without the words "Chevron" or "toxic cloud" somewhere in the lead. But city leaders could only wince last week when everybody's favorite tabloid the National Enquirer ran a photo of their very public screw-up: On speed-bump-laden Mariposa Street a road crew had painted a warning sign alerting drivers to a new "BMUP."

"And it didn't take long," the tabloid chirped, "for a photographer to 'jmup' at the chance to document the misspelling." A receptionist at the city's Streets and Signs division says the Enquirer wasn't the only out-of-town media outlet interested: MSNBC had paid a call, and British tabloid The Sun also devoted a story to the mishap, quipping, "Apparently, while they did their job the painters also put up a sign that read SLOW MEN WORKING. At least that was accurate." City spokeswoman Angela Jones says the mishap was perpetrated by a private contractor, not a city crew. "It was corrected the very next day," she reports. That contractor was Bayhawk Inc., which got a $498,450 contract in November 2001 to erect street-sweeping signs around Richmond. Residents have since been careful not to leave their cars parked on the streets on second and fourth Modnays and Thrusdays. -- Will Harper

The long walk: 7 Days was recently shocked and dismayed to learn that its trusted dog-walker, Oakland resident Rachel Montgomery, was getting locked in the slammer. Certainly a six-month sentence in federal prison and a $500 fine implied some serious infraction -- did she fail to scoop one too many poops? No, Montgomery's crime is far less offensive than irresponsible poop management, involving nothing but a good old-fashioned case of civil disobedience.

Last fall, Montgomery joined thousands of protestors at Fort Benning, Georgia, to protest the existence of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation -- a US combat training school for Latin American soldiers formerly known as the School of the Americas. Montgomery, along with almost one hundred other activists, including several Bay Area locals, crossed peacefully onto the base and was arrested.

The school has drawn protests for years, since reports of its graduates' poor human-rights records reached the public. According to the School of the Americas Watch, an organization dedicated to permanently closing the school and raising awareness about US foreign policies, the school has produced nearly 60,000 graduates conversant with counterinsurgency techniques, commando and psychological warfare, and interrogation tactics. Graduates include numerous dictators who, critics say, have used the training to commit assassinations and civilian massacres. In 1996, the Pentagon was ordered to release information proving the school supported the use of torture, extortion, and execution. In 2001, the school, often dubbed the "School of the Assassins," was renamed in an effort to change its image. Although human-rights courses were added to the curriculum, activists argue it's still the same school and the protests continue.

But since 9/11, the government has cracked down on free speech and activism, handing down harsher sentences for nonviolent protests. "After September 11, the consequences of trespassing became much higher," Montgomery says. "It's been an excuse to treat activists differently."

In the past, she adds, the entrance to Fort Benning was open, and guards allowed hundreds of people to cross onto the base during the annual protest -- too many for the government to prosecute. Now, an eight-foot barricade is erected at the gate, forcing protesters instead to pass through a gap in the fence. And the court is more severe in its sentencing. According to published reports, Judge G. Mallon Faircloth told the protesters that terrorists could "infiltrate" the group. "Times have changed," he reportedly said.

Montgomery received the maximum sentence for trespassing, a tougher penalty than some of the other defendants, because she pleaded not guilty and forced the government to prove its case. But despite having a videotape of people crossing onto the base, they couldn't ID her and had no witnesses. "It was all circumstantial evidence," Montgomery says. It didn't matter. "I didn't take responsibility for my actions and didn't show any contrition," she adds. "I got an extra punishment for wasting the judge's time."

While waiting for her own trial, Montgomery watched the judge sentence a man who'd had two or three DUIs in the last two years to 45 days in jail and 45 days of probation. "He's had every opportunity to kill himself or someone else," she says. "I got six months in federal prison and a $500 fine for taking a ten-minute walk that harmed no one."

In a statement to the judge, Montgomery argued, "You may wish to continue to punish us with sentences which go far beyond any so-called crime we have committed. You may wish to pick apart our arguments against the SOA. You may wish to patronize us for our convictions. You may wish to 'teach us a lesson.' But please know that by doing all of these things, you only make us stronger and draw more attention to the injustice not only in Latin America, but in the so-called justice system of the United States of America."

Montgomery will self-report to a yet-to-be-assigned prison in the next six to eight weeks, and her doggie customers, many of whom have experienced life behind bars at the SPCA, will be sad to see her go. But she has no regrets. "I'm amazed and flabbergasted at how going to prison has gotten people's attention," she says. -- Helene Blatter

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