Justice Department Monitoring Dawson Case
FRESNO, Calif. – At the last two preliminary hearings for Patty Dawson’s alleged attacker, Jennifer Fraser, there was a strong Native American presence outside the Fresno Superior Courthouse. On January 23 and again on February 6, supporters of Dawson surrounded a drum group singing traditional songs. Several people held signs demanding “Justice for Patty Dawson” and dozens of people shook hands with Dawson as she arrived with her family.
The drum groups were there to remind Fresno District Attorney Elizabeth Egan that the Native community is getting frustrated as they await prosecution of Fraser and two other assailants who allegedly chased, spat on and brutally attacked Dawson last summer, leaving her unconscious on a city street. Fraser was arrested in September and posted bond.
Fraser is charged with felonious assault, defined under California law as “an attack on another individual in which the attacker uses a dangerous weapon and seeks to cause serious harm but stops short of an attempt to kill the victim.”
Fraser had requested a plea bargain, but the Dawson family insists they want the case fully prosecuted, and the charges against her elevated to a federal hate crime. Fresno District Attorney Elizabeth Egan has said she was “unaware” of any problems in this case, though dozens of Native people have packed the courtroom on three occasions.
Carol Russo, a conciliation specialist with the U.S. Justice Department is now monitoring the case and recently met with Egan to address concerns of the Dawson family and other Fresno residents, who say there is racism and discrimination evident in the way the case is being handled.
The next preliminary hearing is scheduled for March 5, and Russo said she will attempt to set up a formal meeting with Egan on March 7 for community members to discuss Dawson’s case and similar complaints from communities of color in Fresno and Clovis.
At the last hearing, Dawson supporters who were waiting to pass through metal detectors noticed Fraser, 27, standing in the same line. Suddenly aware that people recognized her, Fraser approached a Fresno Sheriff’s officer, whispering and pointing to the line. Moments later, three officers escorted Fraser to Courtroom 31, where Judge Brant Bramer was presiding over her case.
Fraser was isolated in a corner with deputies as Dawson, her family, and the dozens of peaceful supporters filled the courtroom. Several people loudly asked the Fresno County Sheriffs “Why are you protecting a KKK member?” and, “Fraser is the violent one, so why is she getting protection?”
Dawson, an Apache and Navajo nurse, remained calm and watched the events of the day unfold, but later said she was disappointed that the prosecutors and police seemed to be giving protection to her attacker.
Dawson says many things are unusual in the prosecution of this case, including the failure of the police to fully investigate the crime or to include Dawson’s full statement in the police reports. Though she says she has talked to detectives at least three times since the attack, Dawson has been unable to obtain police reports that include her statements. Twice now, she has visited the Fresno Superior Court Clerk’s offices to obtain copies of her statements, but was told no such documents could be found. When she asked Fresno police for copies of her statements to police, she was told they could not share them with her.
“I’m worried that they did not include all the things that led up to the attack,” says Dawson. “When I spoke to police, they kept asking me what I did to provoke the attack and implied it was road rage. Where in the police reports does it show that they bumped my car, chased me through city streets trying to run me off the road while yelling and spitting at me? I was terrified by the time they caught up with me and attacked me. I want to know why they did this to me.”
She also wonders why it took police more than three months to arrest Fraser, though they had witnesses who chased her car and reported her license plate number the day of the attack. Nor have the other two men in the car with Fraser been arrested.
DA Can’t See Hate Crime
The Dawson family, with the assistance of an attorney, arranged a brief meeting in mid-January with the Fresno District Attorney’s supervisor handling the case, Blake Gunderson, to share their concerns that a full investigation has not been done.
Dawson’s parents drove up from Los Angeles for this meeting, and Patty brought her husband, local organizer Gloria Hernandez, and an advocate familiar with the legal system. But once inside Gunderson’s office, he said there was not enough room for everyone and that only four people could stay. Dawson’s husband, mother, and two others had to leave. DOJ officials were concerned when they heard this, because there’s a conference room nearby and Gunderson could easily have held the meeting there, allowing the family to be present.
In the meeting, Gunderson allegedly told Dawson that he “didn’t see a hate crime here.” He told her that since she couldn’t remember the exact words her assailants were yelling when they chased her and spat on her, it was hard for him to prove it was race-related. “He said that if I was able to write down exactly what they said, it might help my case. So what I’m hearing is that I’m supposed to remember every detail after being beaten unconscious, write it all down for them, then do my own investigation to get evidence of a hate crime,” said Dawson, in tears. “I just want them to do their jobs. No matter how much I repeat myself about what happened that day, I’m not being heard. I’ve talked to detectives three times now, and I even saw my other attacker in court with Jennifer Fraser. I remember him from that day. They are still walking around free after tearing my life apart.”
The case has now attracted the attention and support of several chapters of the American Indian Movement that sent representatives to the last two hearings in Fresno. Tony Gonzales, AIM-West director, says, “We need to stress the federal obligation to the safety of American Indians. We now know of five cases like Patty’s in the West where our people have been attacked. AIM-WEST will be making inquiries to initiate a national hot line for people to call in hate crime attacks of this nature.”
He says AIM and other supporters plan to be at the next scheduled hearing on March 5 hearing in Fresno.
Meanwhile, local support is growing through online petitions and letters of support directed to the District Attorney’s Office.