2022 MT Courtroom Journalist and Artist - 3rd Place

Courtroom Artist 3rd Place
Carol Chen, California High School (San Ramon Valley Unified School District

Desert Gardener Convicted of Voluntary Manslaughter

By Lyanne Wang, Acalanes High School (Acalanes Union High School District)

Judge Michael Chamberlain took just minutes after Tuesday evening’s bench trial to declare Burnsley County resident Jamie Cobey guilty of voluntary manslaughter of fellow Burnsley County resident Erik Smith.

Angel Russell, a lineworker, discovered Smith’s body in Smith’s own front yard at around 8:00 AM on April 30, 2021, approximately 36 hours after Cobey’s mother’s funeral.

Cobey, a well-known gardener in Burnsley County, lived with her mother for ten years at 46603 Raptor Road as tenants of Smith, who lived nearby at 46601 Raptor Road.

The deterioration of this landlord-tenant relationship – exemplified in Smith repeatedly shutting off electricity in Cobey’s home – culminated on April 22, 2021, when a power shut-off caused Cobey’s mother to lose power to her oxygen machine and subsequently die.

At noon on April 29, Smith opened his mailbox’s door to collect his tenants’ rent when a Mojave rattlesnake sprang out and bit his left wrist. Smith was pronounced dead at 9:45 AM the following day.

According to the prosecution, Cobey placed the snake in Smith’s mailbox on the morning of April 29 as a “desperate need for vengeance” and thus deserved a first-degree charge.

During Deputy Garrett’s investigation of Cobey’s residence, Garrett discovered animal handling gloves and snake-proof boots, which prosecutor Erin Hambidge argued was evidence that Cobey “carefully planned the murder of Erik Smith.”

The prosecution relied on character witness Terry Edwards, who testified with widened eyes that on April 28 after the funeral reception, he heard Cobey scream, “I am going to kill him!”

Defense attorney Daniel Ferrari undermined the prosecution’s claims of premeditation by asserting that they based their case on a “misheard statement.”

Upon calling Cobey to the stand, the defendant recounted with a quivering voice that she said, “I am going to kill them,” solely in reference to small animals that ruined her succulents “after all my anger from that day.”

The defense, painting Cobey as “kind friend and grieving daughter,” called Cobey’s neighbor Dani Emling to the stand to testify that “Jamie would never use a creature to hurt anyone.”

Ferrari further argued that despite Cobey's recent loss and funeral costs, Cobey went to Smith’s mailbox on the morning of April 29 to pay her rent money out of good faith.

“Erik Smith’s death was a tragedy but not a murder,” Ferrari said in his closing argument. “Do not let a third tragedy consume this town of Burnsley, California.”

In a pretrial motion, the defense requested that the court deem an incriminating photo inadmissible in the trial, as the photo was a product of a search that violated the Fourth Amendment. Despite prosecutor Hanniel Dunn’s calm argument, Judge Chamberlain granted the defense’s motion.

After mere moments of consideration, Judge Chamberlain rendered the verdict that Cobey was guilty of voluntary manslaughter. In a post-trial interview, Judge Chamberlain explained that “the manifestation of her continued anger made me believe she was acting under stress that prevented her from premeditating.”

Cobey refused to reveal her face as the verdict was announced.

Cobey acquitted in Burnsley snakebite trial

By Nicholas Harvey, California High School (San Ramon Valley Unified School District)

SAN RAMON – Judge Joni Hiramoto acquitted Jamie Cobey on charges of first-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter of her former landlord Erik Smith on Thursday, reasoning that Cobey’s guilt was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

“There were two reasonable conclusions: one that [Cobey] put in her rent check [into Smith’s mailbox] and that this snake crawled in there on its own, and the other that she put it in there and intended to kill Smith,” said Hiramoto.

The defense called on expert testimony to argue that the rattlesnake that killed Smith crawled into the mailbox on its own, seeking a cool place to hide.

“This is a classic snake behavior,” testified herpetologist Tyler Clay. Dani Emling, Cobey’s neighbor and a tenant of Smith’s, agreed, testifying that she found it likely Smith’s death was merely an accident.

“Everyone in Burnsley knows snakes crawl into tight spaces,” said Emling. “We live in a desert. It's common knowledge.”

The prosecution asserted that the snake would not have hidden itself in the mailbox because the mailbox was the same temperature as the outside air. The prosecution argued that the death of Cobey’s mother, who breathed from an oxygen tank, last year after Smith turned off the Cobeys’ electricity provided a motive for murder.

“[Cobey’s] intent to kill was corroborated by the testimony of Terry Edwards who heard her yell, ‘I'm going to kill him [Smith]’ only a few hours before the bite,” said prosecution attorney Cindy Zhu in her closing argument.

However, the defense impeached the testimony of Edwards, another neighbor of Cobey’s, by questioning whether Cobey said “kill him” or “kill them”, in reference to vermin that had ruined her succulents.

“I said ‘them’,” testified Cobey.

Francis Yazzie, Cobey’s neighbor and former boss, testified in support of Cobey’s character.

“Jamie is such a kind, creative and gentle person,” said Yazzie.

Emling further testified to Cobey’s character and said that she believed Cobey, who had experience interacting with snakes from her hobby of xeriscaping, wouldn’t have used an animal to murder Smith.

“Since the time I've known Jamie, I don't believe she would even hurt a mosquito,” said Emling.

“I doubt she would use a creature to hurt anyone."

During pretrial, the defense successfully motioned to suppress a photo of snake tongs in Cobey’s backyard that was captured on a security camera installed by Smith. However, the prosecution used the presence of other snake-related items in Cobey’s garage to argue she planned to put a rattlesnake in Smith’s mailbox to kill him.

“I found books about poisonous desert animals, rattlesnake rattles and even a vial labeled antivenom,” testified deputy sheriff Toni Garrett.

The defense responded by arguing these items were normal items for someone living in the Mojave Desert to own.

“[The prosecution] fail[s] to consider that it is extremely common for desert residents and especially professional gardeners to learn about and protect themselves from dangerous animals,” said defense attorney Marisa Guerra in her closing argument.
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