As anyone who has followed this story already knows, John Chamberlain, a Rancho Santa Margarita software engineer arrested for possession of child pornography, was brutally assaulted at the Theo Lacy Jail in Orange by dozens of inmates who believed he was a child molester. He died late in the evening on Oct. 5, 2006, never having regained consciousness after the attack. Besides the horrific nature of his death, what makes the case particularly noteworthy is the claim, first raised by the inmates and later reported extensively in the OC Weekly, that a jail guard named Kevin Taylor exposed Chamberlain as a sex offender to the inmates just hours before his death.
Jurors in the ongoing trial of the five inmates facing sentences up to life in prison for the murder already know of Taylor's status as a lazy deputy who admitted he was watching television in a nearby guard tower when Chamberlain was attacked, and who, according to other guards who have testified in the trial, used the prisoner gangs to make his own job easier, knowing full well that anyone who didn't obey jailhouse rules or who otherwise pissed him off, would be subjected to violence. (Taylor was fired but never charge with wrongdoing). Yet thanks to a ruling made today by Orange County Superior Court Judge James A. Stotler, the jurors in the case will not be able to parse Taylor's own (and wildly contradictory) statements to investigators about his role in the attack.
Stotler made his ruling outside of the presence of the jury this morning and over the strenuous objections of defense attorneys who argued that Taylor's statements to investigators just hours after the murder were central to their case because he first claimed to recognize a photograph of defendant Jared Petrovich as the shotcaller for the Woods, or white inmates, and then later, after being read his rights and assigned an attorney, backed away from that statement and said he wasn't sure if he recognized Petrovich or not, and that he had no idea whether or not he was a shotcaller.
Taylor's abrupt change of story is noteworthy because Petrovich told investigators, (and later OC Weekly, in an exclusive interview, see “I Lit the Fire, April 3, 2008) that a few hours before Chamberlain died, Taylor told him the inmate was a child molester and urged him to “clean house,” jailhouse slang for assaulting an inmate. As attorney Ed Munoz, who represents defendant Miguel Guillen, told Stotler, transcripts of Taylor's initial interview with Sheriff's homicide investigators reveal that, upon being shown a photograph of Petrovich, and “without a pending question, Taylor identified” Petrovich as the shotcaller for the woods. Then, five days later, Taylor “equivocates” and “volunteers that he doesn't recognize Petrovich as having a leadership role.”
Fred Thiagarajah, attorney for defendant Stephen Carlstrom, also argued that Taylor's statements were crucial to the case. “One of the issues in this case is whether Mr. Petrovich met with Mr. Taylor and whether Mr. Petrovich actually overheard Mr. Taylor and Deputy Jason Chapluk talking about Chamberlain” being a child molester,” Thiagarajah said, adding that Taylor had been on vacation in the week before the murder, when Petrovich arrived at the jail and became the Woods' shotcaller.
“The only way [Taylor] could have recognized Mr. Petrovich is if he had met with him that day,” Thiagarajah argued, adding that the fact that after getting a lawyer, Taylor claimed he no longer recognized Petrovich suggests “consciousness of guilt.”
Prosecutor Ebrahim Baytieh argued that nothing Taylor told investigators has anything to do with the guilt or innocence of the five
jurors defendants. He also claimed that evidence collected in the case showed that Taylor learned of Petrovich's status as a shot-caller from another deputy, rather than from Petrovich himself.
No surprise there. What is surprising, however, is the fact that Judge Stotler, whose rulings so far have been exceedingly balanced, somehow felt that Taylor's two completely inconsistent statements about Petrovich were “irrelevant” to the case.
“The relevance of this is suspect,” Stotler stated, “the probative value is non-existent,” and revealing it to jurors would cause an undue “consumption of time.” But the most hard to stomach claim Stotler made: the difference between Taylor's two statements about Petrovich isn't that big a deal. “The second statement isn't that different,” he argued.
Keith Davidson, Petrovich's attorney, seemed flabbergasted at Stotler's ruling, noting that prosecutors spent nearly a week putting witnesses on the stand who speculated how inmates might learn of another prisoner being a child molester. He noted that jurors have already heard Petrovich on audiotape telling investigators that “he lit the fire” by telling other inmates about Chamberlain after learning of his pending charges from Taylor, a quote that Petrovich also gave to the Weekly and which Baytieh himself read aloud to jurors shortly before resting his case.
“The famous term 'I lit the fire”… that is the essence of the case
against Mr. Petrovich,” Davidson concluded. “That's why he is facing life in prison. To not put this information before the jury would simply be unjust.”
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).