Colusa court tightens security
Townsfolk park their cars curbside mere yards from the Colusa County Courthouse. They walk through the door of the stately white-columned building - with no metal detector guarding the way - and head inside the building to check on property records, or meet the county clerk or district attorney in person.
This free, laid-back access is emblematic of Colusa's relaxed tone, a far cry from the passions aroused by the shooting death of a policeman 185 miles away in Merced. But those very passions have forced the transfer of the suspect's murder trial to Colusa, where in several weeks a small-town courthouse will find itself more hunkered down than usual.
Starting sometime in mid-April, the Colusa courthouse will play host to the trial of 24-year-old Cuitlahuac Tahua “Tao” Rivera of Merced, who is accused of fatally shooting Merced police Officer Stephan Gray during a traffic stop on April 15, 2004.
Rivera, whom police identified as a member of the Hispanic Gangster Crips, was captured after a 17-day manhunt. He faces the death penalty if convicted.
Jury selection is to begin at the courthouse on Tuesday, and Colusa Superior Judge S. William Abel will hear the case. Rivera, held in Merced County since his arrest, was transferred March 2 to the Colusa County Jail for his trial, expected to last about six weeks.
Even with the courtroom a three-hour drive from the crime scene, the Sheriff's Department will tighten security during the trial, Sheriff Scott D. Marshall said Wednesday.
The agency will station layers of uniformed and plainclothes deputies inside the building, at the door and on sidewalks surrounding the site at Fourth and Jay streets. A metal detector usually kept in storage will guard one door, which will become the only entrance and exit during the trial. No street closures are currently planned.
Marshall expressed little concern about trouble from suspected gang members heading to Colusa for the trial, but said he would be watchful of any disruptions by Rivera's family and friends.
“Our information is that there may be relatives or friends that could be disruptive,” the sheriff said. (In September 2004 Rivera's sister protested his innocence while disrupting a Merced County press conference announcing the decision to seek the death penalty, the Merced Sun-Star reported.)
A Merced County judge moved the trial to Colusa in August 2005 because of the intense local publicity surrounding Gray's death, the first murder of an on-duty officer in Merced.
Under state law, Merced County still must cover trial costs up to $800,000, with 90 percent state reimbursement above that amount. The county expects to spend $900,000 of the estimated $1.6 million expense, according to the Merced Sun-Star.
Appeal-Democrat reporter Howard Yune can be reached at 749-4708. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information from the Merced Sun-Star was used in this report.