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Tattoos on trial 

Convicted murderer used victim's white supremacist tattoos as the basis for his appeal

Walk down any street on any given day, and you are very likely to see more a than handful of people with tattoos.

In 2017, ink-decorated skin is more prevalent than ever before, offering the public a glimpse into the tattoo wearer's personal life and beliefs. Tattoos aren't just art but often represent a personal statement to the rest of the world.

To convicted murderer Thomas Yanaga, they also represented a slim chance of getting his case appealed.

Yanaga was sentenced to 40 years to life in prison for the 2015 murder of 32-year-old Marshall Savoy. During a two-week trial, prosecutors detailed how Yanaga shot Savoy five times in the driveway of Yanaga's Paso Robles home in the late evening hours of March 13. The jury convicted Yanaga on Sept. 25, 2016, finding his attorney's arguments that the shooting had been in self-defense unconvincing.

But according to an appeal filed with the California 2nd District Court of Appeals in the wake of his conviction, Yanaga believed that the jury didn't get to hear a critical detail about the murders, that both Savoy and Ashley Moss, Savoy's girlfriend who witnessed the shooting, may have been racially biased against him. As evidence, Yanaga's appeal points to tattoos on both Savoy's and Moss' bodies that prominently featured words or symbols associated with the American white supremacist movement.

Before his trial began, Yanaga and his attorney attempted to introduce as evidence photographs of tattoos on Savoy's arms. Those included the word "white" on the back of one arm, and the word "power" on the back of the other.

Similarly, the defense also tried to admit evidence that Moss had a white supremacist tattoo: the number 1488. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the symbol is a combination of numbers, with 14 referring to a popular 14-word phrase attributed to David Lane, a now-deceased leader of a violent white supremacist gang called "The Order," and 88 standing for "heil Hitler," as "h" is the eighth letter of the alphabet.

"Together, the numbers form a general endorsement of white supremacy and its beliefs," the league's website states. "As such, they are ubiquitous within the white supremacist movement. ... Some white supremacists will even price racist merchandise, such as T-shirts or compact discs, for $14.88."

In a written brief for his appellate case, Yanaga's attorney argued that allowing evidence of Moss' alleged racist tattoos during the trial may have called into question the motives behind her testimony about Yanaga and what happened on the night Savoy was murdered.

"Evidence of Moss' tattoo would have shown that she subscribed to white supremacist views, so much so that she chose to permanently mark her body with a white supremacist symbol," the document stated. "This, in turn, would have a tendency to show that she had a bias against non-white people, including [appellant], whose last name [Yanaga] unequivocally signaled his Japanese origin."

But neither Moss' nor Savoy's tattoos were presented to the jury during Yanaga's trial. According to appellate court documents, the SLO County Superior Court judge who handled the case, John Trice, noted that Savoy never made any anti-Asian comments or slurs to Yanaga, and noted that Yanaga did not look Asian.

"I'm not going to allow any photographs of Mr. Savoy's white power tattoos, as despicable as they may be," Trice said. "I think it's more prejudicial than probative. This is, in the court's opinion ... not a racially motivated case."

The appellate court made a similar case for excluding evidence of Moss' tattoo, noting that the trial record showed that Moss and Yanaga had a friendly relationship prior to the shooting, with Moss living rent-free in the spare bedroom in Yanaga's home.

Yanaga's appeal argued that the trial court erred in excluding the tattoos.

"His theory is that the victim and the witness were biased against Japanese people," the appeal court's opinion stated.

Siding with Trice's original rulings, the court rejected Yanaga's appeal, indicating there was little to no other evidence that either Savoy or Moss were racially biased against Yanaga. In fact, the appeal court's decision indicated that allowing the tattoos to be used as evidence could have possibly unfairly biased the jury against Moss and Savoy.

"There is no evidence that Savoy's threatened assault was racially motivated," the opinion stated, later adding, "The record is devoid of evidence that [Moss] was prejudiced against appellant because of his Asian ancestry."

Yanaga remains in custody in a state prison facility in Corcoran. He will not be eligible for parole until March of 2040, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at cmcguinness@newtimesslo.com.


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