Man knocks out woman in unprovoked Avila Beach bar fight
If ever there were an open-and-shut criminal case, the People v. Christopher Matthew Olcott seemed to qualify.
A video played for the jury clearly showed Olcott elbowing a young woman in a blow that knocked her unconsciousness, then repeatedly punching her companion at the bar — for no apparent reason other than some appallingly juvenile effort to defend his space.
Yet a jury failed to find Olcott, 39, guilty of a felony charge of battery. It deadlocked 7-5 in favor of guilt.
The barroom beatdown at Mr. Rick’s happened almost three years ago, but it didn’t provoke public outrage until a couple of weeks ago, when the video was leaked to the media — and it was learned that Olcott was still working as a building inspector with the city of San Luis Obispo. (He’s since been placed on paid leave while the city conducts its own investigation.)
The video has been viewed nearly 250,000 times and has elicited hundreds of comments, almost all of them agreeing: The guy is guilty.
We concur. We rarely criticize jury verdicts — after all, we aren’t privy to all that goes on in the courtroom — but this is one time when the video evidence speaks for itself.
So how could five jurors decide otherwise?
We got in touch with one juror who offered his perspective. (If other jurors would like to add their comments, please reach out to us.)
John Backer was among the seven who voted to convict Olcott of felony assault; he calls the outcome of the case a “triumph over common sense.”
Backer says a minority of jury members had the attitude that a “nice young man” like Olcott couldn’t be guilty.
The defense presented Olcott as a “good, clean-cut, hardworking professional with a family — as opposed to two people who don’t come from this area and shouldn’t have come to this place in the first place,” said Backer.
Backer didn’t hear any jurors make overtly racist comments about victims Camille Chavez, who is Mexican-American, or Isaac McCormack, who is part Native American and Mexican.
But he believes race played a role. “Obviously, (there) was an undercurrent of economic and racial bias pushed into the trial,” Backer said. “It was reflected in the deliberations of the jury.”
Chavez believes so, too. She told reporter Nick Wilson that an investigator told her one of the jurors said, “Why should he (Olcott) lose his job for two Mexicans in a bar?”
Backer confirmed jurors were concerned that Olcott — the “nice young man” — could lose his job, even though they had been instructed that they were only to consider guilt or innocence — not the possible consequences of a verdict.
Once the jury began deliberating, it quickly became clear that “it wasn’t going to come to a conclusion,” Backer said.
One juror had her mind made up from the outset. She said, in effect: “I’m not going to vote to convict him. Nobody can change my mind..”
It’s obvious that Ilan Funke-Bilu — a highly skilled defense attorney — did an excellent job of overcoming what appears to be insurmountable evidence against his client, at least in the minds of some jurors.
He argued the victims were drunk and didn’t know what they were doing. And he broke down the video, frame by frame, in a way that could make it appear that Camille Chavez was the aggressor and the “nice young man” was defending himself.
Anyone viewing the video can see that Olcott was the aggressor; Chavez bumped him with her hip only in response to his repeated incursions on her space.
The video also makes it clear that the entire incident could have been avoided had Olcott simply moved forward a few steps — there was plenty of space for him to do that. Yet when that issue was raised in the jury room. Backer said, a response was: “Why should he have to move for them?”
We hope this jury, which Backer describes as mostly older, white and conservative, isn’t typical for San Luis Obispo County. If it is, we all should have serious concerns about whether people of color can get justice in our community.
And given this mind-boggling outcome, why in the world didn’t District Attorney Dan Dow agree to retry it, rather than settle for a guilty plea to a lesser, misdemeanor charge that earned Olcott a mere 60 days in jail?
Dow told The Tribune that the misdemeanor plea resulted in a punishment “substantially similar” to what he would have gotten for a felony — even though a felony conviction can be punished by two to four years behind bars. On top of that, the city would have more cause to fire Olcott if he had been convicted of a felony.
Backer, who describes himself as a relatively conservative person, was left disillusioned by the experience.
“If we go back and look at the law — the ways it’s written — I think it’s a bad outcome.”
He believes Olcott should lose his job with the city.
“A building inspector is a person you’re supposed to let into your house,” he said. “It’s not appropriate for a guy who acted like that to be let into my house. Why would you do that?”