In a surprising reversal of expected events, Phillip Garrido pleaded not guilty to the kidnapping, imprisonment and sexual assault of Jaycee Lee Dugard Thursday morning in an El Dorado County courthouse before a sea of reporters from across the country.
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Earlier this week, Stephen Tapson, the defense attorney for Nancy Garrido,told the Mountain Democrat that Nancy’s husband, Phillip, would enter a guilty plea at the couple’s next hearing.
In the days following Tapson’s revelation, Susan Gellman, Phillip’s public defender, could not be reached for comment and El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson declined to discuss the matter.
With a throng of news media attending Thursday’s hearing, Gellman shocked the crowd by entering a not guilty plea on her client’s behalf.
Nancy Garrido also entered a not guilty plea after Superior Court Judge Douglas C. Phimister made several minor amendments to the grand jury indictment, which was used to formally charge the couple in September 2010.
After the hearing Tapson stepped up to a makeshift podium at the entrance Building C where the courtroom is located and addressed the crowd.
“I’m the one who unleashed the yellow jackets at the picnic,” he said.
Tapson, who had initially told reporters of the looming guilty plea, said a last-minute “hitch” led to Phillip Garrido’s actual entered plea.
Gellman, according to Tapson, raised a question Wednesday night over how the county’s grand jury was selected. He would not elaborate further.
Because of Gellman’s concerns, Phillip Garrido had no choice but to plead not guilty, Tapson said.
Whether Garrido would plead guilty or take his chances with a jury trial, Tapson would not say.
Tapson also criticized District Attorney Pierson for refusing to give his client a sentence he deemed reasonable, down from the proposed offer of more than 180 years to life in prison.
“Compassion is not in his vocabulary,” said Tapson.
Minutes later, Pierson spoke to reporters, saying Gellman’s motion to challenge the grand jury selection process was a “routine” maneuver used by defense attorneys.
Pierson was confident her motion would be denied and that the case would continue on.
When asked whether he would consider offering Nancy Garrido a more lenient sentence, Pierson said: “My responsibility is to see that these two are held accountable for the enormity of their actions.”
Gellman, who appeared exasperated, also fielded questions from the surprised press corps.
It was evident that she was not pleased with Tapson talking about Phillip Garrido.
“He should speak for his client,” she said.
Although the grand jury indictment was handed down last September, Gellman said she had not challenged its selection process because she had been wrapped up with her client’s competency issues.
“My job is to zealously advocate for my client,” she said. “That’s what I’m doing.”
Gellman acknowledged the likelihood that her client will spend the rest of his life in prison.
“But that doesn’t mean I roll over and play dead,” she said.
Phillip Garrido’s public defender was also critical of the district attorney’s recent letter lashing back at the notion that Nancy Garrido deserves mercy, saying Pierson was “having problems with his ethical responsibility.”
If the Garridos do indeed go to trial, it is expected to begin Aug. 1, the court announced Thursday. Attorneys believe it will last three to four weeks.
Tapson told reporters that Dugard, who has remained in seclusion since authorities found her and her daughters alive in 2009, would testify if a jury trial becomes necessary.
Phillip and Nancy Garrido are accused of kidnapping Jaycee Lee Dugard from near her South Lake Tahoe home in 1991, when she was 11. Prosecutors say she was held captive for 18 years and gave birth to two daughters fathered by Phillip Garrido.
The couple is due back in court May 5.
E-mail Jim Ratajczak at [email protected] or call 530-344-5069.