A jury convicted Sunny Acres Ranch owner Dan DeVaul on Sept. 22 of two charges of misdemeanor safety violations and acquitted him of two other counts. The jury deadlocked on five more, setting the scene for a possible retrial if DeVaul and the prosecutor don’t agree on conditions for sentencing.
The jury convicted DeVaul of fire safety violations and illegally storing mobile homes and vehicles on his property. He was acquitted of illegal grading operations and of violating a stop-work order. The judge declared a mistrial on the other counts when the jurors said they were deadlocked.
Deputy District Attorney Craig Van Rooyen said he would not be recommending any jail time and asked the judge for two weeks to decide on punishment for DeVaul.
Jurors were sequestered during deliberations for about two days, said juror Mary Partin outside the courtroom. She said they stalemated on a majority of the charges, primarily because many jurors didn’t find the witnesses credible. Additionally, the service DeVaul provides to the county’s displaced homeless at his Sunny Acres ranch played a significant part toward his defense.
“You didn’t want to find him guilty on anything,” Partin said.
The trial was unusual. DeVaul’s attorney Jeff Stulberg called no witnesses and mounted no defense. No one testifying could remember a criminal jury trial for infractions of county safety codes. Complaints by Christine Mulholland, a prominent county activist and former SLO city councilmember, motivated the prosecution.
Partin said she and other jurors believed Mulholland’s governmental role drove actions against DeVaul to unreasonably escalate: “Me, personally, I would hope that they would drop it and just let it go.”
Van Rooyen and Stulberg seemed to be arguing at different trials. The prosecution enmeshed its arguments in traditional prosecutorial logic that would not have been out of place in an old movie thriller. The defense fought back by portraying the trial as a modern folk tale—the little guy versus the Man.
Van Rooyen’s closing arguments were precise and dry. He systematically detailed the evidence against DeVaul for nine charges, illustrating his case on a large poster board atop an easel. One juror fought to stay awake.
Stulberg portrayed DeVaul as a martyred saint of the homeless who was victimized, “by one powerful person to the disadvantage of others.” He portrayed DuVaul’s prosecution as an assault on American values.
“The rights of one powerful landowner should not allow the power of government to stomp on Mr. DeVaul,” said Stulberg, to the suddenly alert jurors. “Is that the San Luis Obispo County you want to live in? Is that the America you want to live in?”
Due to a court-imposed gag order, DeVaul and the witnesses were unable to comment.