After seven years, trial of suspected cop killer begins today in San Jose
By Linda Goldston
Posted: 02/23/2009 06:46 AM PST
Officer Jeffrey Fontana was only two weeks on the job when the policeman was shot on a quiet a cul-de-sac in San Jose's Almaden Valley. It was 4:30 a.m., three days before Halloween 2001.
More than seven years later, the case has finally wound its way to trial and a jury will decide whether DeShawn Campbell, the San Jose man arrested 11 days after Fontana's death, is the killer who shot the 24-year-old San Jose police officer in the eye.
In opening arguments set to begin today in Santa Clara County Superior Court, Deputy District Attorney Lane Liroff is expected to charge that Fontana was killed "for a trivial and insignificant" reason after Campbell was beaten up by revelers at a Halloween party and headed back with a gun. And the charges will be "vigorously defended and contested" by defense attorney Edward Sousa. But some of the poignant testimony about the case won't be spoken at all, and it won't be about the 29-year-old Campbell.
Seated in the audience will be Fontana's parents, Sandy and Tony, who have pleaded for justice at a memorial and vigil for their son every Halloween since his death. They have waited through years of legal wrangling — first a conflict of interest on the public defender's part, then different rulings on Campbell's mental capacity.
The judge first ruled that Campbell was not mentally retarded, then after many long hearings, decided that he was, which means he cannot be sentenced to death. Now that
a trial is actually set and a jury of seven men and five women seated, "we're hoping for justice finally after seven years," Fontana's mother said Thursday evening. After all the sadness and heartbreak through the years, it was all she wanted to say on the eve of trial for her son's suspected killer. All she could say.
"We have had to sit there and see what the Fontana family has had to go through," said San Jose Police Chief Rob Davis. "They have been victimized over and over again."
Davis said the delays have also taken a toll on his department.
"If any group understands that the justice system isn't perfect, it's police officers," he said. "But to take this long has left a very negative impression on the department."
Fontana was the 11th San Jose officer to be killed in the line of duty, and no officers have been killed since, but the danger has not gone away, Davis said. "People seem to forget that police officers are still out there being shot at."
In three separate incidents, five officers have had shots fired at them in the last five months. Davis said he thinks of cop killing as more than the murder of one of his officers; he sees them as attacks against the community. Many officers can't help thinking: "That could have been me." Making a difference in the community was what drew Fontana into police work, Davis said.
"He truly saw himself as a young man who could come out and make a difference."
Instead, he died because Campbell thought killing him would keep him from going to prison, Liroff said.
"The guy had two felony warrants out for his arrest," Liroff said. "One was for a probation revocation hearing and the other was for using a fraudulent credit card." If Campbell had been picked up and served time for those crimes, "he would have been out by now," Liroff said.
Sousa declined to comment on the case.
"Mr. Campbell is presumed innocent," he said. "The charges will be vigorously defended and contested, and it would be inappropriate to comment on the specific evidence that will be presented at trial."
According to Liroff, events that led to the shooting about 4:30 a.m. that Oct. 28 actually started several hours earlier at a Halloween party.
"It was a Halloween party gone bad and Campbell got his bottom kicked," Liroff said. Campbell left the party with other people and then "decided to go home and get his gun. He's coming back to the party when he crosses paths with Jeffrey Fontana."
Liroff said Campbell told friends "he was afraid to go to prison for these two trivial things," the two arrest warrants.
Since the killing, Campbell was convicted of other crimes and sentenced to 20 years in prison. A park near Calle Almaden, the cul-de-sac where Fontana was killed, was renamed in honor of the young officer.
If convicted, Campbell faces life in prison without the possibility of parole. He had faced the death penalty until a judge ruled in December that Campbell was mentally retarded — ending one of the legal battles that delayed the trial for so long. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment for mentally retarded felons.
With capital punishment off the table, Liroff does not have to specify which degree of murder until the close of evidence. It is unknown if Campbell will take the stand. Liroff said there will be 75 to 100 witnesses, and the trial could last until the middle or end of May.
"This is a tragedy all way round," Davis said. "This trial should have happened a long time ago — a very long time ago."
Contact Linda Goldston at email@example.com
or (408) 920-5862.