2022 MT Courtroom Journalist and Artist - 1st Place

1st Place Courtroom Artist
Sadie Pool, Acalanes High School (Acalanes Union High School District)


Burnsley Man Found Guilty of Murder

By Casey Scheiner, Miramonte High School (Acalanes Union High School District)

MARTINEZ, Calif. (Jan. 27, 2022) - In an online Contra Costa Courthouse trial Thursday, Judge Dirk Manoukian convicted Burnsley’s Jamie Cobey for the murder of neighbor Erik Smith.

The pivotal incident occurred on April 29 of 2021, when a rattlesnake bit Smith, Cobey’s landlord. Cobey was under suspicion after lineworker Angel Russell witnessed him carrying a snake cage and placing an object in the victim’s mailbox, which Cobey alleged was a rent check.

Shortly thereafter, Smith, age 70, reached into the mailbox, where a Mojave rattlesnake bit him. He did not pursue medical care afterwards, a decision criticized by the defense and Dr. Tyler Clay, who stated, “It’s extremely unlikely that the victim would’ve died had he sought medical treatment immediately following the bite.” A day later, Smith was pronounced dead.

Accusations of Cobey as Smith’s murderer stemmed from their previous conflicts. A day prior to Smith’s death, both men attended the defendant’s mother’s funeral. “On April 22, Erik turned off our electricity,” Cobey sobbed, still shook from his mother’s passing. This cut off access to her oxygen tank, eventually leading to her death. At the funeral, according to Terry Edwards, a friend
of the victim, Cobey yelled, “I’m going to kill him” and shouted at Smith, “You killed my mom.”

In her closing statement, prosecutor Elsa Cooke summarized, “ Means. Motive. Opportunity. It’s all here [for the murder of Erik Smith].”

The defense countered these allegation by insisting the prosecution’s claims were all circumstantial. “There was more than enough reasonable doubt to make the only justifiable ruling not guilty,” defense attorney Zaynamin Murtaza intensely exclaimed in his opening statement. Cobey, in addition to his enthusiastic, sincere friends Dani Emling and Francis Yazzie, countered the prosecution’s accusations by claiming he was a gentle figure; that he was distressed, greatly regretted his comments at the funeral, and “wished Smith no ill will.”

Additionally, there was disagreement between experts. Medical Examiner Dr. Charlie Dunn argued with conviction that “it’s rare for a snake to crawl into a space as warm as a mailbox,” citing snakes’ interest in cool crevices to insinuate that a person inserted the rattler. Snake expert Dr. Tyler Clay disagreed, saying he’d “seen multiple cases of a snake crawling into a mailbox.”
He contended it was “extremely likely that the death was due to the victim’s kidney disease.”

In a defense pretrial motion trying to strike a potentially incriminating photo of snake tongs, Judge Manoukian denied the motion and sided with prosecution attorney Michelle Giovinazzo’s passionate words and references to court cases like United States vs Katz. Manoukian shot down defense lawyer Jasper Byrne’s assertion that the police violated the Fourth Amendment to gather the evidence, stating the tongs were “able to be seen by the general public in a variety of ways.”

Manoukian justified his guilty verdict, explaining that “The prosecution did a nice job leading questions on cross-examination. They created a strong narrative in their opening and closing statements. Also important was the defendant’s knowledge of the victim’s medical conditions.”

Defendant Jamie Cobey was visibly emotional at this trial. Now, he will have to come to grips with another wave of feelings as he comprehends that he is headed to prison for a long time.
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