Rush to judgment
Two years after the high-profile stabbing of Joseph Igbineweka an innocent man is still haunted by suspicion
Sixty hours had passed since the savage and shocking stabbing of Chico State student body President Joseph Igbineweka near campus. Chico’s mayor, Ann Schwab, deeply troubled by the attack, had shuffled the City Council’s April 20, 2010, agenda to get a report from Police Chief Mike Maloney “so that everyone in the community understands what happened.”
Schwab noted that police had characterized the attack as a hate crime and attempted murder. “Very serious in our community,” the mayor said somberly.
Police had arrested a 19-year-old Butte College student, Barry Sayavong, a mere two minutes after the attack was reported at 2:17 a.m. on Sunday, April 18. Given the relative prominence of the victim, the seriousness of his injuries and the hate-crime label, the incident garnered considerable media attention and provoked an outpouring of community concern.
Joe Wills, chief spokesman for Chico State, told a CNN news website: “This is a hate crime and a very big deal.” University President Paul Zingg denounced the attack as a symptom of racism that is “deep-seated and widespread and getting worse,” including on college campuses, reported the CN&R. Chico State’s Academic Senate drafted a resolution that read: “The scars from the attack … will persist with [Igbineweka] physically and to the reputation of the university and community for years to come.”
Maloney began his six-minute presentation by telling the council that Igbineweka, prior to being attacked, “had taken the time to walk a friend home in order to ensure” the friend’s safety.
The police chief went on to describe Sayavong as having had “a criminal history that includes past participation in criminal street gang activity, and, in fact, that evening conducted himself in a manner that causes us to believe … that he is still in some way affiliated with a criminal street gang.” Maloney said he expected Sayavong to be arraigned the next day in Butte County Superior Court.
“He was arrested … and he has been charged with attempted murder and a hate crime because it appears with the information we have at this point that Joseph was in fact targeted for this brutal assault for no other reason than the fact he was African American,” Maloney said. “The … violent nature of this act, with the added dimension of being a hate crime, is especially concerning to us.”
Maloney’s account proved to be incorrect—in big and small ways—beginning with the fact that Igbineweka says he did not walk anyone to safety that night. Of more importance, Sayavong did not actually stab Igbineweka. The assault was not actually a hate crime. And there was no evidence the incident was actually gang related.
The police’s public presentation of the stabbing case has left some lingering misimpressions in Internet land—both about Sayavong’s guilt and about Chico being the place where a stunning hate crime occurred. Be that as it may, the police chief has no apologies about any aspect of his department’s performance, including his own.
The attack’s aftermath also was a case study in the checks and balances of the legal system, as well as of the poor reliability of eyewitness identifications. And the attack, now on the eve of its second anniversary, became a defining moment for Chico, in that it directly led to greater attention to diversity in city government.
Within two days of the council meeting, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey determined there was insufficient evidence to arraign Sayavong, ordering his release from jail April 22. A photo of Sayavong, taken after his arrest, shows no outward signs of someone who had been in a fight, let alone a bloody melee.
The Chico Enterprise-Record, quoting police, reported April 20 that the attack was a one-man crime. However, Maloney, even after Sayavong’s release, continued to call him a suspect, according to the E-R. The Orion, the university’s student newspaper (which this writer advised at the time), quoted police as describing the suspect as of “Laotian descent”—though Sayavong’s national heritage in relation to the crime had no apparent relevance.
Sayavong’s attorney, Tracy Tully-Davis of Chico, blasted police for “a rush to judgment.” She insisted her client was at a party—one that authorities say victim Igbineweka also attended but that he says he didn’t—at the time of the assault.
“It’s shocking they would arrest him based on one witness’ identification without checking his alibi,” Tully-Davis told the E-R. “The mayor of Chico, the Police Department and the press have made him out to be a racist thug. … Nothing could be further from the truth. Mr. Sayavong is a Butte College student doing well in school.”
Police described Sayavong as uncooperative and hostile the night of his arrest. After his release, he came with his attorney to the Police Department and agreed to be interviewed by investigators.
“He denied being present during the altercation with Joseph,” said Mark Hoffman, a Chico police detective. “I asked him why he didn’t provide this statement to officers that night, and he said because he was angry” about being arrested.
When Hoffman asked Sayavong whether, if he did know who stabbed Igbineweka, he would tell police, Sayavong said no. Detectives attribute that answer to not wanting to be viewed as a “snitch” on the streets.
Sayavong, now 21, is reportedly still a student at Butte College. In a message relayed via a friend, Sayavong “respectfully declined” to be interviewed for this story.
A check of the Butte County Superior Court website shows that he has committed one crime in the county since turning 18: running a stoplight last year.
In cop jargon, as a juvenile Sayavong was classified as a “gang associate.” When recently asked what crime Sayavong committed as a juvenile, Hoffman responded that there were more serious issues to focus on in the stabbing investigation “than what Barry Sayavong did when he was 15 or 16.”
Sayavong perhaps remains better known for this crime he didn’t commit than the actual stabber, Jorge Aguilar Ceja, who has been sentenced to seven years in state prison for the assault. Aguilar, 21, turned himself into Chico police in August 2011; a “documented gang member,” according to Hoffman, he pleaded no contest to felony assault with a deadly weapon and guilty to inflicting great bodily injury.
The top story in a current Google search of “Joseph Igbineweka” is the CNN story, titled “California college’s student president stabbed; hate crime alleged,” which names Sayavong as the suspect.
Plug that same headline into a YouTube search, and what pops up is a news report by Steve Large of KOVR-TV in Sacramento that carries the CNN logo. Large is filmed talking with Igbineweka, freshly out of the hospital, at West Sacramento Avenue and Warner Street, where the victim’s dried blood was still visible on the sidewalk.
“This student body president says he will be in court Thursday to face his alleged attacker,” Large dramatically concludes the video. “One man’s battle scars now turning into his own personal battle cry.”
Despite his spending five days in jail, Sayavong’s release was evidence of a justice system that worked, his own attorney said at the time. In fact, it could be argued that Sayavong was fortunate that he wasn’t jailed longer. The Innocence Project reports that “eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in more than 75 percent of convictions overturned through DNA testing.”
District Attorney Mike Ramsey agrees that the system worked, adding: “That’s why it’s always ‘alleged’ until they’re convicted.”
In fact, “alleged” was nowhere to be found in the Police Department’s rather rudimentary press release, issued before daybreak the day of the attack. It read in part: “Joseph Igbineweka was walking … Barry Sayavong approached Joseph and made racial slurs toward him. Barry then pulled out a knife and began to slash and stab Joseph.”
According to investigators, Igbineweka left the house party near the intersection of Hobart Street and West Sacramento during the early hours of April 18. Sayavong also was at that party, as was Aguilar; authorities characterize the two as “friends and associates.” Police “don’t have any indication of a problem” occurring at the party that later could have spilled into the streets, Hoffman said.
That authorities say the stabber and the victim were at the same party shortly before the attack has not been previously reported in the media. Igbineweka says he never joined the party and actually was next door at a friend’s house after drinking in bars downtown. He recalls people milling around in the street and on the sidewalk. When asked recently whether something could have happened in the neighborhood that provoked the attack, Igbineweka said, “There wasn’t any fighting at the party or any other commotion.”
Jonathan Caudill, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Chico State, while not wanting to second-guess the police or in any manner blame the victim, says random acts of violence are pretty unusual.
“Especially when you have the possibility for them to have contact previously in a small environment,” said Caudill, noting the small sizes of the houses and yards in the area. “It might have been random to Joseph, but it might not have been random to [his attackers].”
As Igbineweka headed home, he walked westbound on the south side of West Sacramento near Hobart. Shouts of the “n” word came from a group of young men on the north side of West Sac. Two of the men “crossed the street, began to follow him from a very short distance and continued to taunt him and yell racial slurs,” Maloney told the council. One of the men threw a punch at Igbineweka, prompting him to sock the man in the face in return.
“He felt my physical power,” recalled Igbineweka, who is 6-foot-4 and weighs 215 pounds.
The second man then entered the fray, and more blows were exchanged. It was only after his two attackers—“the stabber and the non-stabber,” in Ramsey’s words—had fled north on Warner that Igbineweka realized he had been severely cut. He was aided at the scene by a good Samaritan, according to court records, and rushed to Enloe Medical Center.
Meantime, Officer Robert Glass, heading toward the scene of the stabbing, spotted four young men near the intersection of West Sacramento and Citrus avenues who fit the first descriptions of the attackers. He ordered them to stop. Initially, all four men started to run, but two quickly halted, and they “were on the ground at 2:20 with a gun on them,” less than three minutes after the assault, said Niels Bringsjord, Butte County deputy district attorney.
About six hours later, around 8 a.m. Sunday, a bloody six-inch, single-blade folding knife was found outside a house at the corner of Hobart and West First Avenue. The knife was sent to the state Department of Justice for analysis, but it would be five months before investigators would learn the results: DNA on the knife matched that of two people—Joseph Igbineweka and Jorge Aguilar.
Igbineweka’s wounds included “a six-inch horizontal cut to his neck; several cuts to his chest; a puncture mark on his abdomen; a one-inch cut on his left forearm; and a large cut on his inner forearm that was approximately six inches long, three inches wide and exposed muscle and tendon,” according to court documents.
Igbineweka today works in San Francisco and lives in Oakland. He confronted some “dark days” through the healing process but feels he is back to normal mentally, he said. Igbineweka did say, however, that he will never regain the full use of the pinky and ring finger of his left hand.
Barry Sayavong became the accused principally because an eyewitness to the stabbing provided what the cops call a “positive identification” of him. Contrary to common public perception, however, eyewitness IDs are generally considered less reliable than circumstantial evidence, such as a DNA match from blood on a knife, according to legal scholars.
“… Numerous psychological studies have shown that human beings are not very good at identifying people they saw only once for a relatively short period of time,” Michael C. Dorf, a Cornell University professor, wrote in 2001. “The studies reveal error rates of as high as fifty percent—a frightening statistic given that many convictions may be based largely or solely on such testimony.
“These studies show further that the ability to identify a stranger is diminished by stress … [and] that cross-racial identifications are especially unreliable.” Identifications that cross racial lines are even more problematic because of a difficulty people of all races have identifying people of other races.
Caudill, the Chico State professor, also characterized the reliability of eyewitness identifications as “really poor” and that of cross-racial IDs as “terrible.”
Aguilar is Hispanic; Sayavong is Asian. Aguilar is about 6 feet tall and weighs 230 pounds, while Sayavong is lighter and several inches shorter, Ramsey stated. Six eyewitnesses to the stabbing generally described to police an attacker who was about 5 feet 8 inches tall and either Hispanic or Asian. Igbineweka told investigators his stabber was 5 feet 7 inches, stocky but not fat, but he was uncertain about race.
Three of the witnesses, all young white men, were brought individually to where Sayavong was detained for what the cops call an “in-field show-up.” Beforehand, police admonish a witness that the person to be spotlighted may or may not have been involved in the crime, Hoffman said.
Given that the bars had just closed on a Chico Saturday night, sobriety was in short supply in the vicinity of the stabbing. The three witnesses told police they had consumed in the range of four to seven drinks during the night—though it is common for people to underestimate their drinking to officers, Caudill said.
When the light was shined on Sayavong, one witness said he was the stabber, another said he wasn’t, and the third said he was 70 percent sure Sayavong wielded the knife. Not exactly a landslide vote, but sufficient to constitute “probable cause” for police to arrest Sayavong, law enforcement officials interviewed for this story agree.
“It sounds like the Police Department followed common investigative practices,” Caudill concluded.
Detective Hoffman interviewed Igbineweka at the hospital the day after the attack, on April 19. Igbineweka was shown a “photo line-up” of six Asians that included a picture of Sayavong; the victim picked out two other men as his attackers.
The first person quoted in news accounts as questioning the hate-crime scenario was Igbineweka’s reported girlfriend at the time, Morgan Zakheim. In an interview the day after the attack, she told the E-R: “If a white person had been walking down the street, the same racial language would have been used.” She speculated that the attackers were “just drunken fools,” while Igbineweka believes his attackers were “on a controlled substance.”
From his hospital bed, Igbineweka also cast doubt on the hate-crime theory.
“I asked him if he believed his assailants were addressing him as ‘nigger’ (or ‘nigga,’ in street slang) due to his race or if they were just using that word as it is commonly used in the street slang that is becoming alarmingly common,” Hoffman said in an email. “Joseph said that his impression was that the assailants would have called anyone they were harassing that word and that it was most likely not being used solely because of his race.”
In order to be a hate crime, an offense must “be motivated by animus for another person because of their race” or other protected class, Ramsey said. “Merely calling a person a name is not a hate crime.”
Ramsey’s decision not to charge Aguilar with a hate crime was, he said, based largely and “appropriately” on Igbineweka’s account, which was consistent with the stabber’s later denial of racial motives.
In fact, Aguilar claimed to be acting in self-defense, pulling out his knife only after Igbineweka started “thumping” on him, Ramsey said.
“That word is not as powerful of an indicator anymore,” Ramsey said, “and we’ve had other cases where it just seems that the power of the ‘n’ word has gone away because everyone’s using it, either as a good thing, a cool thing, a hip thing—or an angry thing.”
Maloney sees things differently than Ramsey on the hate-crime issue, calling Igbineweka’s feelings about it irrelevant.
“Victims don’t determine whether or not it’s a hate crime,” Maloney said. “It’s what can be proven [about the] perspective of the assailant.”
One of the first things Ramsey wanted to determine, in his initial discussions with police detectives, was whether Sayavong had blood on him.
“This was obviously a very bloody stabbing, and the arteries … in Joseph’s arm would be spurting blood,” Ramsey said. And because Igbineweka was fighting with a gaping forearm wound, “his arms would be throwing blood. So I expect Barry to be pretty bloody. No blood. That’s a problem” in terms of proving Sayavong’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
Since Sayavong was detained within a couple of minutes of the assault, it is unlikely that he would have been able to change or discard clothes and clean himself, Ramsey said.
Sayavong also had no cuts on his hands of the sort an attacker would likely have sustained using the type of knife that was recovered, the DA said.
Maloney also has a different take from Ramsey’s regarding the absence of blood on Sayavong’s clothing, which was eventually confirmed by a state Department of Justice analysis.
“I can tell you that things that you think should happen, don’t, and things that you would never expect to happen, do—all the time,” the police chief said. “It would make sense that somebody who would inflict such a vicious injury would have blood on them, but I can’t say the absence of blood would be an indication they were not responsible for inflicting the injury.
“I’ll tell you, to this day, from our perspective [Sayavong] was involved in that thing,” Maloney added. “There has never been sufficient information to constitute proof of innocence.”
Maloney said he is routinely briefed on the general details of high-profile cases, but he has no recollection of what he was told or by whom during the 2 1/2 days from the stabbing to his council presentation, which was “based on information I was provided at that time,” he said. “I wouldn’t have related that publicly to council if it weren’t related to me. … The information provided to the council was accurate, and it remained accurate.”
Ramsey defends the police’s handling of the case—both the jailing of Sayavong for a crime he didn’t commit and the erroneous hate-crime label. He compared “the fog of the crime scene” for officers to “the fog of war” for soldiers.
Mayor Schwab recalls her shock upon learning of the Igbineweka stabbing. He was a student she knew well in her job as a manager in the university’s Community Action Volunteers in Education program.
Despite the pain and trauma he endured, Igbineweka remained “unbelievably positive,” repeatedly praising the police, Enloe and the community for their care and support, Schwab said. Five days after the attack, an estimated 900 people attended what was called a unity rally on campus. Zingg and Schwab both spoke from behind a podium to which a hand-lettered sign had been hastily taped. It read: “stop the violence. stop hate.”
“It was done in a peaceful manner,” Schwab said. “I mean tensions were very high that following week, and I think Joseph’s approach to it helped … keep the peace.”
The Igbineweka stabbing was the pivotal event for city government in that it prompted Schwab to propose and push to adoption Chico’s first Diversity Action Plan in July 2011. “I felt the city needed to be a leader and say … that we do value diversity; we do value our whole community,” the mayor said.
“Whether this was a hate crime or not, it certainly was a high-profile crime. Here was a student body leader, African [American] … who had really promoted safety in the student area, and who was to me just an outstanding student leader who cared so much for this community,” Schwab said. “It brought to light so many other examples of attacks against minorities.”
The stabbing of Igbineweka was not only a high-profile case for the Chico Police Department, but a high-priority one as well. And so when the mayor asked the chief of police, some 60 hours after the crime, to give a public report “so that everyone in the community understands what happened,” she presumably expected accurate and current information.
Instead, the community got the same story the police put out a couple of hours after the attack—a rush to judgment centered on one dubious identification from the fog of the crime scene. The same scenario that was dead on arrival at the District Attorney’s Office a day or so later.
Maloney defends the veracity of the information that he presented to the public. But when the suspect exchanged his street clothes for jail-issue orange and there were no bloodstains, and when the victim said he didn’t think the attack was racially motivated, those developments would seem significant enough to have altered the police’s public representation of this crime.
Readers can draw their own conclusions about Sayavong’s silence, but he has broken no laws in Butte County as an adult beyond one traffic infraction.
This much is clear: Sayavong did not stab Igbineweka, in what was a vicious crime but not a hate crime. Yet he remains guilty by association—at least in the mind of Chico’s police brass and apparently until he proves his innocence, which is not exactly the American way.