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Rev. Butler One Step Closer to Freedom

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By Mary Shelton

Since the tragic shooting of Tyisha Miller by four former Riverside Police Department officers in 1998, many activists who marched for justice have been prosecuted and sentenced through the same criminal justice system that declined to prosecute the officers.

One activist, Bernell Butler moved one step closer to freedom on Feb. 24. when a judge reduced his bail after the Riverside County District Attorney’s office declined to file further charges against him.

Presiding judge Russell Schooling lowered Butler’s bail from $250,000 to $10,000 after prosecutor Richard Bentley told the court that his office would not pursue a case against him.

"We are not filing the other charges," prosecutor Richard Bentley said, "The bail schedule is appropriate."

Defense Attorney Mark Blankenship agreed.
"That's a dead case at this point," he said before asking the court to reduce the bail. He said that prosecutor Guy Pittman had told him that Butler would not be charged with any crimes in connection with an altercation that occurred on Jan. 13.

And so Schooling, as former judge Janice McIntyre had initially done before him, reduced Butler's bail.

Activists hope that his ruling will stick and that Butler will be able to bail himself out of jail after spending more than a month in custody before the D.A.'s office reached its decision. However, he still must have his six-month jail sentence stemming from a 2001 misdemeanor conviction resuspended by Judge Edward Webster before he can be released on bail.

Butler also awaits a preliminary hearing on two counts of possessing firearms within 10 years of a conviction set for March 7.

Blankenship said afterwards that he believed that unreliable witness statements and the lack of evidence dimmed the enthusiasm of the D.A.'s office in terms of prosecuting Butler. He added that they had raised Butler's bail so high based solely on the hearsay of a Riverside County Sheriff deputy and not on any actual charges filed against him.

In court, Butler appeared relieved at the news. While in custody, Butler had told the Black Voice News by phone that many of the inmates and jail guards knew him well due to his activism after Miller’s death in 1998 so he was well treated by them. He also said that he did not kidnap anyone nor did he have an AK-47 as alleged by prosecutors and sheriff deputies.

Butler was arrested on Jan. 22 after 17 Riverside County Sheriff Deputies from its Jurupa Valley Station showed up with a $5000 arrest and search warrant for Butler’s residence as well as other dwellings on the property owned by his family.

Several hours after his arrest, Riverside County Sheriff Detective James Knudson filed a PC 1269c affidavit alleging that Butler’s bail should be set much higher than the $5,000 set by the bail schedule because he said that he had found weapons at Butler’s residence that he claimed were connected to the earlier incident where there was an exchange of gunfire and that he believed Butler would use them to intimidate victims connected with that incident.

Knudson initially asked that no bail be set, but then crossed that out on the form and reduced his request to $250,000, according to court records. Judge Becky Dugan granted the request and then set that bail.

However, on Jan. 24, McIntyre reduced Butler’s bail back down to $10,000 with little fanfare because no paper work had been presented defending the high bail nor was there any prosecutor in court to contest the reduced bail.

By Jan. 27, the bail had been reset again to $250,000 without explanation.

Relations between Butler and the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department have been strained since Deputy Paul Roblas had assaulted Butler’s son, Jerel, at Rubidoux High School breaking his nose. Last autumn, Butler won a settlement from the county of Riverside from a lawsuit filed in United States District Court stemming from that incident.

Blankenship said that Butler had told him that Knudson had said that he arrested him to "alleviate racial tension" and that he had already formed a biased opinion against Butler before the arrest.

Since Miller’s killing, the D.A.’s office has prosecuted Butler twice, first when it tried him for four felonies and a misdemeanor which led to acquittals and then for his participation in the Nov. 1, 1999 prayer vigil on the 91 freeway.

Butler's arrest and prosecution have sent shockwaves throughout Riverside and Southern California coming so quickly on the heels of Riverside's decision to pay a retirement package to former Riverside Police Department officer Michael Alagna which ultimately will be worth close to $1 million.

Activists from several organizations planned to protest Butler's incarceration in the streets and through letters sent asking the D.A.'s office to drop the criminal charges in what they feel is political prosecution. They question why it is that Riverside pays off officers who have killed an African-American woman lying unconscious in her car, but activists get prosecuted.

Mike Molver said that he was ready to march in the streets if necessary to protest and agreed it was political prosecution. He added that jailing Butler on unspecified charges sent a clear message to community leaders.
"As one of the Freeway Twenty, I feel the Police Department and the District Attorney's office have declared war on the Black community as well as all activists in Riverside," he said.

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