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The following article was posted on August 9th, 2012, in the New Times - Volume 27, Issue 2 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 27, Issue 2

Justice deferred?

After an attempt to recuse the DA, a SLO firefighter beating case heads to trial ... maybe

BY MATT FOUNTAIN

A San Luis Obispo firefighter accused of severely beating a man in a bar bathroom will finally get his day in court in early September.

Perhaps.

John Ryan Mason, 35, is facing two felony counts—assault with a deadly weapon, and battery resulting in great bodily injury—stemming from a violent late-night incident at a local bar and grill. He pleaded not guilty to both charges at a preliminary court hearing in October 2011.

The case—at least on its face—appears to have been at a stand-still for well more than a year. Mason’s trial was originally scheduled for January.

But below the surface, there’s been a lot going on, including gag order attempts, prosecutorial shake-ups, and even allegations of conflict of interest accompanying an attempt to bar the District Attorney’s Office from trying the case.

In October 2011, the original deputy district attorney assigned to the case, Karen Gray, unsuccessfully lobbied San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Duffy to place a gag order on all parties involved in the case, citing the intense media attention. That request was denied.

After Mason’s arraignment, the case seemed to linger in oblivion, with proceedings moving along at a snail’s pace. Originally set for January, Mason’s trial has been continued months down the line on three separate occasions.

Even the alleged victim in the case, Jory Brigham, began to doubt if it would ever happen.

Most recently, however, Mason’s San Luis Obispo-based attorney, Chris Casciola, filed a motion to have the SLO County DA’s Office recused from the case after discovering Brigham had recorded conversations with Gray, prosecutor Kristy Imel, and DA investigator Scott Odom. Casciola argued that the recordings were illegal, and that the wrongdoing essentially made the DA’s office the victim of a crime by the alleged victim.

Casciola also pointed out that Brigham retained the services of the James McKiernan law firm, indicating possible plans to pursue Mason for civil damages, an outcome that would be greatly assisted if Mason were found criminally guilty.

According to Casciola’s motion, Brigham “acquired confidential communications in a dishonest manner that gives him the ability to extort the very office who is representing his interests.” Casciola argued the case should be tried by the California Attorney General’s Office.

Brigham and the DA’s Office disagreed. Brigham later told New Times that he did record a few phone and in-person conversations with an application on his iPhone, but the recordings were for his own notes—prosecutors weren’t always aware they were being recorded.

According to a report by investigator Odom, Brigham immediately told prosecutors of the recordings and “profusely apologized” for not asking for consent prior to the recording. Odom reported that Brigham told him the recordings were for no reason other than helping him remember and understand what had been discussed. Brigham reportedly said that since the concussion and severe head trauma he suffered in the alleged attack, he has had some memory problems.

“Nothing that occurred or was said during any meeting … with Mr. Brigham, that if recorded and made public, would embarrass me as a Deputy District Attorney or in any way cause me to handle this case any differently than I do the other cases I am assigned,” Imel wrote in opposition to Casciola’s claim.

On June 12, Judge Duffy rejected Casciola’s motion.

But that’s just the latest in a recent string of upsets in the case. In April, the entire proceeding seemed to teeter on the brink of dismissal after a local news outlet quoted Brigham’s attorney as saying Gray planned to dismiss the case against Mason, claiming she didn’t think it was winnable.

Brigham disputed the article, but agreed that he didn’t have much faith in Gray’s resolve to seek a conviction. Then the DA’s Office replaced Gray with Imel. Since Imel took the reins, Brigham said, things have begun to move again.

“It’s been an absolute 180,” Brigham said.

Last he spoke with the DA’s Office, he said, there were somewhere in the ballpark of 40 possible witnesses for the prosecution. It’s not known how many witnesses the defense plans to call. Casciola could not be reached as of press time.

Brigham said he’s expected to testify.

The unusual case stems from the night of June 4, 2011, when Brigham and Mason were attending a wedding reception for a mutual friend at Pappy McGregor’s Pub in San Luis Obispo. There was an ongoing dispute between the two—who shared the same circle of friends—but during the wedding and reception, tensions seemed under wraps.

But as Brigham went to use the restroom, Mason allegedly followed him in. What happened next will be disputed in court, but what isn’t disputed is that Brigham was found unconscious on the floor of the restroom, bleeding profusely from severe injuries to his head and face.

Brigham was taken to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center and underwent more than seven hours of surgery, receiving three plates in his face and having his jaw wired shut.

Mason left the scene with his wife in a taxi prior to officers showing up. He wasn’t arrested until five days later—the same day New Times published an article about the incident.

Several witnesses told investigators Mason was the aggressor in the incident, while at least one other witness indicated he saw the men grappling, suggesting a mutual fight.

According to the San Luis Obispo Human Resources Department, Mason remains employed by the city, but was placed on unpaid administrative leave on April 26.

The parties are currently scheduled back in SLO Superior Court for a trial readiness conference on Aug. 30. Jury selection is set to commence on Sept. 5.

Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at mfountain@newtimesslo.com.