On March 23, after deliberating for 40 minutes, a jury emerged from the jury room inside the courthouse in Vista. The 12 members had reached a verdict. As they filed into the jury box, the defendant, Michael Shields, stood beside his attorney, David Boertje. Shields’s heart pounded as the foreman announced the verdict: not guilty of assault with a deadly weapon. It was a quick and easy end to a long and difficult year.
It started on the evening of February 25, 2009, when Shields, a licensed mortgage broker and full-time college student, was driving his red Jeep Liberty southeast on Barnard Drive in Oceanside after attending guitar class at MiraCosta College. According to Shields, as he approached a man on a bicycle — later identified as Martin Rios — Rios wove from the bike lane into the middle of the road. Shields passed him on the right. Moments later, Shields looked in his rearview mirror and saw Rios making an obscene hand gesture. Shields turned right on College Boulevard and got into the left-hand turn lane at the intersection of College and Vista Way. Traffic was backed up at the light, and Shields began inching forward. He glanced in his rearview mirror and saw Rios approaching on the driver’s side. As Rios pedaled past the Jeep, he spit on the windshield, slapped the hood, then raised his right leg to kick the fender. But, Shields said, he kicked too late and missed, losing his balance and causing the bike to fall in front of the car, toward the center of the vehicle. Shields jerked the steering wheel to the left, avoiding Rios but running over the bike’s rear tire.
Shields got out of his vehicle and Rios ran up to him. At that time, a man pulled up on a motorcycle. He, too, was aggressive toward Shields. The man asked Rios if he was all right. Shields said he heard the man call Rios “Martin.” The witness then asked what Shields did for a living. Shields said that he was a broker, and the man said, “You hear that, Martin?”
Oceanside police officer J. Dominique arrived on the scene at 5:58 p.m. According to the police report, Officer Dominique interviewed Rios first. Rios complained of pain in his right shoulder. The police report indicated that he had an eight-inch-by-four-inch “scrape” on his left thigh.
Both Rios and the witness, Trevor Hudson, claimed Shields intentionally ran Rios down. Rios said that after the spitting incident, Shields became angry and punched the gas, running Rios over, dragging him across two lanes of traffic and over the center divider.
Shields told Dominique that the man on the bicycle had fallen and Shields had swerved out of the way, hitting the bike but not the man.
After interviewing the three men, the officer determined that “Shields had used his vehicle as a weapon.” He arrested Shields for assault with a deadly weapon and transported him to the Oceanside Police Department in handcuffs.
After being processed, Shields waived his Miranda rights and sat down with Officer Dominique to give a recorded audio statement. He described the events, and he said that after the collision, a man on a motorcycle pulled up and immediately turned to Rios and said, “Martin, are you okay?” In the recorded audio statement Shields said he “thought that was weird,” that the witness knew Martin’s name.
Shields said that before he was hauled off to the detention facility in Vista, Officer Dominique told him not to worry, that the case would go nowhere.
Officer Dominique was wrong. Shields was charged with assault with a deadly weapon, a felony. The one thing that went nowhere was a copy of the recorded interview conducted by Officer Dominique. That recording wouldn’t surface for 13 months, until two days before Shields’s trial began.
During those 13 months, Shields often asked his lawyer, David Boertje, about the recording. Shields assured him that the witness and the victim were friends. How else would the witness have known Rios’s name that day? Despite Shields’s queries, there was no evidence of the recorded statement and there was no mention of it in the police report, as is required.
Shields attended preliminary hearings and learned that if convicted he could face up to four years in prison. In the following months, he became depressed. He developed a bleeding ulcer. Most mornings he awoke to a guttural, dry cough that caused him to run to the toilet to vomit blood. His marriage of eight years began to fall apart. He spent all the money he had saved for his first semester at the University of California San Diego. He contemplated fleeing to Costa Rica. He dropped 30 pounds. The depression became so severe that one month before trial, Shields found himself researching suicide on the internet. One morning he opened a bottle of Vicodin and stuffed a handful of pills into his mouth. He held a glass of water in his hand. Instead of chugging the water and the pills, he spit them out into the sink.
As the trial neared, the district attorney’s office offered a plea bargain: a one-year mandatory prison sentence and the felony charge on Shields’s record would be lowered to a misdemeanor after three years.
On March 31, outside a coffee shop in Linda Vista, Shields and David Boertje sat down to talk about the case. Animated and visibly upset, Shields discussed his depression, the toll the case had taken on him, both personally and financially, and the decision not to take the plea bargain.
“I almost took the plea to avoid a very scary prison sentence,” said Shields. “I stuck to my guns against the advice of my parents and attorney. They all said the risk is too great. I knew I was innocent.”
Two days before the trial began, Boertje said, he received news from deputy district attorney Elisabeth Silva that a notation in an evidence log saying “audio CD” had been discovered. Silva told Boertje that she didn’t know what was on the audio CD.