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The People v. Masala Majid James

December 22, 2011


Superior Court of Alameda County, No. H45120, Robert K. Kurtz, Judge. (Alameda County Super. Ct. No. H45120)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bruiniers, J.


Appellant Masala Majid James was charged with commission of a second degree robbery (Pen. Code, § 211)*fn1 and elected to represent himself during pretrial proceedings. James contends that he was compelled to waive his right to represent himself at trial because he was refused direct access to a law library while in custody and was provided insufficient access to legal research materials, in violation of his federal constitutional rights. Represented by counsel re-appointed at his request, James was convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison. We affirm.


James was charged, by information, with one count of second degree robbery (§ 211). The information also alleged that James had 14 prior convictions, seven of which were prior serious felony convictions (§ 667, subd. (a)(1)), and also constituted "strikes" (§§ 667, subd. (e)(2), 1170.12, subd. (c)(2)). The information further alleged that James had served three prior prison terms (§ 667.5, subd. (b)).

Before the case went to trial, the trial court (Hon. Robert Kurtz) noted there was no suggestion that James had displayed a weapon during the robbery and indicated its willingness to strike all but one of James's strike priors, if James would waive his right to a jury trial. James agreed to do so. James does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his convictions. Thus, we recite the operative evidence, presented at the bench trial, only for context.

Prosecution's Case

On September 28, 2007, the Washington Mutual bank branch near the Stoneridge Mall, in Pleasanton, was robbed. At the time, James worked for the Salvation Army picking up donations in Bay Area cities, including Pleasanton.

On September 28, 2007, James was assigned to work with Patrick Worrell-Facey. Worrell-Facey testified that he remembered a day, in September 2007, when he and James traveled to Pleasanton to pick up donations. During their lunch break, at James's suggestion, they stopped and parked in the lot of a Pleasanton shopping mall. James changed into "[d]esert army fatigue clothes," including boots and a hat, inside the Salvation Army truck. James then left while Worrell-Facey stayed in the truck to sleep.

That same day, Farhan Mohsin, the assistant manager of the Pleasanton branch of Washington Mutual bank, greeted an African-American man, wearing a camouflage uniform and hat, who entered the bank between 1:00 and 1:30 p.m. The man proceeded to a teller window. The teller at the window was Reena Stroman. Stroman testified that, between 1:00 and 1:30 p.m., a tall, African-American man wearing a light army camouflage shirt, told her: " 'Don't look around. Listen, this is a robbery case. I have a weapon. I'll shoot you if you do. Give me all the big bills you have.' " Stroman handed over all the $50 and $100 bills she had in her "working drawer." After being told to empty the drawer, Stroman handed over the rest of the money she had in her working drawer--about $1,500 to $1,600 total. The man put the cash in his pocket and told Stroman to open up a second drawer. She then gave him all of the money in that second drawer--between $4,000 and $5,000. After placing the money from the second drawer in his pocket, the man told Stroman, " 'Thank you ma'am. Have a good day.' " He then exited the bank. Stroman pressed her silent alarm and police were provided with photographs of the robber from surveillance tapes. Both Mohsin and Stroman later identified James as the robber.

Worrell-Facey woke from his nap when he heard James return to the truck. James still had on the same "desert army fatigue clothes." As Worrell-Facey drove away from the mall, James changed back into the clothes he had been wearing that morning and started counting money.

Defense Case

A witness who stood behind the robber in line testified that he did not believe James was the robber. He stated: "the robber was a lot lighter skinned. [¶] . . . [¶] . . . And he had a skinnier face."

The court found James guilty of second degree robbery and found all prior-conviction allegations true. At sentencing, the trial court struck all but one of James's "strike" priors, on its own motion pursuant to section 1385 and People v. Superior Court (Romero) (1996) 13 Cal.4th 497.*fn2 James was sentenced to 18 years in prison. This timely appeal followed.

II. Discussion

James contends that his Sixth Amendment right to self-representation was violated because, when he represented himself before trial, he was denied personal access to a law library. He claims that he was limited to the use of a "paging" system, which provided only legal materials specifically requested. James further contends that, by denying him direct personal access to a law library, the trial court "compelled" him to relinquish his propria persona status, further violating his right to self-representation under the Sixth Amendment to the federal Constitution.*fn3 James's claims are without merit.

"A defendant in a criminal case possesses two constitutional rights with respect to representation that are mutually exclusive. A defendant has the right to be represented by counsel at all critical stages of a criminal prosecution. (United States v. Wade (1967) 388 U.S. 218, 223-227; Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) 372 U.S. 335, 339-345; Powell v. Alabama (1932) 287 U.S. 45, 71.) At the same time, the United States Supreme Court has held that because the Sixth Amendment grants to the accused personally the right to present a defense, a defendant possesses the right to represent ...

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