“Probable Cause” Found for Prosecution of J.T. Conway at Preliminary Hearing

By Carl Butz

The wheels of justice move slowly. Almost a year and a half has elapsed since Dr. Ari Gershman was shot and killed while driving with his son near Poker Flat in the northwestern sector of Sierra County on July 3, 2020. John T. Conway was arrested as a suspect for the crime on the following day, after he drove rapidly through a law enforcement roadblock on Saddleback Road towards Highway 49. 

During the ensuing time, Conway, after recovering from a gunshot wound received during his apprehension, has remained incarcerated at the Wayne Brown Correctional Facility in Nevada City. Local and state investigators have amassed information resulting in a set of nine charges being levied against Conway in October 2020. In July of 2021, the court, in the person of Sierra County Superior Court Judge Yvette Durant, following a series of exams by psychiatrists, ruled against the defendant’s claim that since he cannot recall anything about the days before his arrest, he should be exempt from criminal prosecution. The state, however, stated while they would prosecute, they would not be seeking the death penalty. 

Thus, on this past Thursday, December 2, Conway appeared at the Downieville Courthouse, handcuffed, shackled, and wearing a bright orange jumpsuit, to attend the next prelude to his trial, a preliminary hearing of the charges against him. 

Also in the courtroom: Jeff Cunan (the lawyer appointed by the court to defend Conway), Michael Canzoneri and Heather Gimle (lawyers for the prosecution from the state’s Office of the Attorney General), Sandra Groven (Sierra County District Attorney), Sierra County  Deputies (K. Cameron and S. Bayly to present evidence and two others serving as Bailiffs), five members of the public, and Judge Yvette Durant. Judge Durant had the charge of determining whether or not the People (that is, the prosecution) had provided sufficient evidence of the defendant’s criminal culpability to meet the “probable cause” burden of proof required for a criminal trial to proceed. 

Indeed, after hearing both the evidence presented by the prosecution and the defense’s cross-examination of the deputies who detailed the findings of their investigations and of the technical forensic work done by investigators at the California Department of Justice, Durant did find the People had met the “not weighty” burden of proof standard of “probable cause.” Durant noted that 

in a different venue, such as a jury trial, the much stricter “beyond a reasonable doubt” gauge would apply. Accordingly, the arraignment of Conway is now scheduled to start next Thursday, December 16 at 10 AM on the following charges: first-degree murder with malice of aforethought, two counts of attempted murder with malice of aforethought, robbery, two counts of assault upon a peace officer with a deadly weapon, shooting at an occupied vehicle, burglary, and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Each of the murder charges carry the potential for a 25-years to life sentence and the maximum total sentence for the other charges would be 35 years. 

Meanwhile, for those who are disturbed by the pace of these judicial proceedings, we have to consider the alternative. For example, the rapid hanging of Juanita/Josefa here in Downieville, back in 1851, comes to mind. 

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