On the eve of a hearing to determine if she should be taken into custody pending sentencing in her vehicular manslaughter case, Marci Kitchen surrendered her bail bond and voluntarily committed herself to the Humboldt County jail Sept. 3, forfeiting what may have been her last night as a free woman for some years.
Max Hadley, whom the court recently appointed to be Kitchen's mitigation specialist, said Kitchen decided to voluntarily surrender and not to oppose prosecutors' efforts to jail her until her Sept. 18 sentencing hearing in an effort to "take responsibility." Mitigation specialists are certified experts brought into a criminal case with the purpose of researching a defendant's life in order to put his or her crimes into a larger context, with a special focus on mitigating factors that the defense can argue should be taken into account at sentencing. They are frequently appointed — or hired by private defense attorneys — in cases with open pleas and a wide spectrum of sentencing outcomes, or in cases that are death-penalty eligible or carry the potential for lifetime incarceration.
Kitchen pleaded guilty as charged in the case Aug. 20, admitting that she was driving drunk when she struck and killed two 14-year-old girls, one of whom was her daughter, on Eel River Drive shortly after dusk July 12, 2016, and fled the scene. She had remained free after posting $750,000 bail in the case but was due in court Sept. 4 for a custody hearing at which prosecutors were going to argue that she should be held in jail until her sentencing hearing, when she faces a maximum sentence of up to 11 years in state prison, according to prosecutors, but could be released on probation.
Hadley said Kitchen made the decision to voluntarily surrender her bond.
"She decided she was going to do what she has wanted to do all along, which was take responsibility for this and start serving her time now," Hadley said. "Her lawyers never would let her talk about this case or take responsibility because they felt the case could be litigated, so she was never able to do this because her lawyers advised against it."
Kiya Kitchen, Kitchen's daughter, and her friend Faith Tsarnas were both struck from behind while skateboarding on Eel River Drive. Tsarnas died at the Fortuna crash site and Kiya Kitchen died of her injuries a day later at a Bay Area hospital.
After fleeing the scene of the crash, Kitchen surrendered to authorities two months later when — after the California Highway Patrol finished its investigation — prosecutors charged her with two counts of vehicular manslaughter, one count of driving under the influence causing injury and one count of fleeing the scene of an injury crash.
Kitchen had pleaded not guilty in the case — which dragged through the local court system, bogged down by repeated delays, including one that came after her private attorneys stepped away from the case, saying she'd run out of money to pay them. But she surprised everyone last month when she pleaded guilty as charged, admitting to each of the four counts and the seven special allegations she faced.
During the change of plea hearing, both Deputy District Attorney Stacey Eads and local attorney Heidi Holmquist-Wells, who was in court representing Kiya Kitchen's father and brother, asked the court to take Kitchen into custody pending sentencing, noting that she has essentially been convicted, poses a flight risk and that more than 750 days had passed since the girls were killed. Interim Conflict Counsel Meagan O'Connell, who's representing Kitchen in the case, argued against jailing her client, saying she'd abided by all conditions of her bail and made all her court appearances.
Judge Kaleb Cockrum denied the request from the prosecution for the time being but set the Sept. 4 hearing to allow both sides to officially argue the matter. But after Kitchen's surrender, Cockrum indicated she is now being held without bail.
Kitchen appeared briefly in court Sept. 4 but did not stay for the proceeding. Instead she was led by bailiffs from the courtroom and back to the jail, as she's waived her right to be physically present at all hearings in the case and allowed O'Connell to appear on her behalf.
Hadley told the Journal after the hearing that Kitchen is being held in isolation at the jail because staff fears for her safety.
"She did not make that request and we did not make it for her," Hadley said. "But I think there's good reason for them to do that."
During the brief Sept. 4 hearing, O'Connell indicated to the court that Kitchen plans to read a statement at the time of her sentencing, which would constitute the first time she has made a public comment since her Jeep struck and killed the two girls in 2016.
Cockrum also granted a pair of requests from local media to take video footage and photographs of Kitchen's sentencing hearing and said he would inquire about broadcasting the sentencing hearing in Supervisors Chambers on the courthouse's first floor in anticipation that a larger crowd may attend the hearing than the courtroom can accommodate.
In the wake of Kitchen's surrender, some have speculated that she opted to enter jail voluntarily in order to receive credit at her sentencing hearing for time served. While it's true that Kitchen will likely receive credits when she is sentenced for the 15 days she will have already been in custody — plus an equal number of credits for "good conduct" — it's worth noting that the local good conduct credits come at a slower clip than those Kitchen would be eligible to receive in prison.
Locally, inmates deemed to have served time with "good conduct" receive an equal credit for each day served, meaning that if Kitchen has served 15 days at the time of her sentencing with good conduct, she would receive credit for a total of 30 days served. But under Proposition 57, people serving time for "nonviolent" offenses like vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated without gross negligence are eligible to serve only a third of their sentence with "good conduct," meaning Kitchen would be credited with 45 days served for 15 actual days in prison.
When Kitchen appears to be sentenced Sept. 18, she will face a wide range of potential sentences. Prosecutors have argued that her total exposure in the case is 11 years, while O'Connell has calculated the maximum penalty to be 10 years and four months. But Cockrum conditioned Kitchen's plea on her receiving a mid-term sentence for the principal manslaughter charge, which would reduce her maximum exposure by two years. (Cockrum retains the option of sentencing Kitchen to the maximum term, but doing so would give her the option of taking back her plea and proceeding to trial in the case.) It's worth noting that Kitchen is also eligible for probation.
A number of recent high-profile vehicular manslaughter cases have seen judges take a seemingly light hand at the time of sentencing.
In 2013, Michael Joseph Campbell, a former Humboldt County Sheriff's Office deputy who pleaded guilty to gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated stemming from the 2012 DUI motorcycle crash that killed 30-year-old Cara Banducci, faced a maximum sentence of 10 years in state prison. But Judge Bruce Watson opted to sentence Campbell to a year in county jail and six years probation, saying he found Campbell unlikely to reoffend.
Last year, Kade Chandler faced a maximum sentence of 12 years in state prison after pleading guilty to two counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated stemming from the Feb. 21, 2015, crash on State Route 36 that killed two of his passengers, Savannah Kindred, 21, and Kendra Lewis, 19. Judge John Feeney sentenced him to a year in county jail and 10 years probation.
Speaking to the Journal after Kitchen surrendered her bail bond Sept. 3, Hadley reiterated that Kitchen was taking the action in an effort to take responsibility in the case and not in an effort to angle for a more lenient sentence.
"She's waiting to be sentenced and will accept whatever that sentence is," Hadley said.
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.