Two found guilty in 1999 hate crime attack

North County Times/November 22, 2001
By John Hall

Riverside ---- Two white supremacists were found guilty Wednesday in the violent 1999 attack of a black man ---- a case the prosecutor called the most significant hate crime prosecution in the county's history.

Into its sixth day of deliberations Wednesday, the six-man, six-woman jury announced it had reached verdicts against Travis George Miskam, 22, of Hemet, and Jesse David Douglas, 20, of Temecula.

The two avoided what could have resulted in life sentences when the jury convicted them on charges related to assault with a deadly weapon instead of attempted murder.

Nonetheless, the prosecutor said he is pleased with the verdicts and says it sends a message to those who commit hate crimes.

"It's our opinion that we sent a message to white supremacists with this," prosecutor John Ruiz said outside the courtroom. "If you have those beliefs, you don't set up in the county and commit crimes because, if you do, we'll come after you with a meat cleaver.

"There is no place for these crimes in our society and we'll continue to come down hard on those who commit them," Ruiz said.

Miskam and Douglas, who are white, were part of a group that attacked Murrieta resident Randy Wordell Bowen, who is black, at a March 17, 1999, party in the hills near Lake Skinner. Prosecutors alleged that Miskam hit Bowen in the head with a bottle and that he led the chase and subsequent attack of Bowen during which Douglas slashed the victim across the back with a straight razor.

Bowen was hospitalized with injuries to his head and a deep cut to his back that required a number of stitches and staples to close.

The jury found Miskam guilty of using the bottle as a weapon, but found Douglas not guilty of using a weapon during the attack.

Miskam and Douglas had been charged with attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder and could have faced life in prison if convicted of those charges.

However, the jury found them guilty of the lesser charges of assault with a deadly weapon and conspiracy to commit assault with a deadly weapon as well as causing great bodily injury to Bowen. Both men were also found guilty of committing a hate crime and committing a crime to benefit and promote a criminal street gang ---- in this case the Western Hammerskins, a localized branch of an international white supremacist organization.

Because jurors found both men guilty of the lesser charges, Miskam faces a maximum sentence of about 20 years in prison while Douglas could go to prison for up to 15 years, Ruiz said. Miskam's sentence will be longer because he has a previous felony conviction, he added.

Superior Court Judge Patrick Magers scheduled sentencing for Miskam and Douglas for the morning of Jan. 11 at the Hall of Justice in Riverside.

Ruiz, as well as defense attorneys Peter Morreale and Peter Scalisi, said they were pleased with the outcome of the trial, which started in late October.

"This is an appropriate verdict," said Morreale, who represented Miskam. "This case was overcharged to begin with. I never believed this was ever a life case ... I'm very relieved that these boys avoided a life sentence."

After the verdict, both defense attorneys questioned some of the counts their clients were convicted of.

"I personally still don't believe it was a racially motivated attack," Morreale said, while Scalisi said Douglas was never really a member of the white supremacist group known as the Western Hammerskins.

Scalisi said that Douglas, who was 17 at the time of the attack, wasn't old enough to join the group. "He couldn't join until he was 18. It's pretty clear he had friends who were members, but he wasn't."

Jurors never got to hear evidence that Douglas wasn't a member, Scalisi said, because in order to do that, the jury would have needed to hear testimony from Douglas himself or from a known member of the Western Hammerskins. Neither was going to happen, Scalisi added.

Ruiz said that the convictions for this being a hate crime and being committed by a criminal street gang adds eight years to the sentence for each defendant.

The jury foreman, who asked that his name not be used, said that until Tuesday it was still possible that both men would be convicted of attempted murder.

"We knew there was an attack ..., but it was iffy if there was intent to commit murder," he added.

On Tuesday, jurors came to a conclusion on Miskam's involvement and finished with Douglas's on Wednesday morning, the foreman said.

Throughout the lengthy deliberations, some jurors wavered back and forth between the guilt and innocence of both men, the foreman added.

There was frustration, he said, "not in the decision we had to make but in the time it was taking."

Jurors said outside the courtroom that there was a lot of discussion about whether Douglas used a straight razor to slash Bowen.

One of the things that ultimately convinced them to find that he did not was that no forensic evidence was found on Douglas' straight razor. "There was no blood, no fingerprints," the foreman said. "The real knife (used in the attack) could have been gone (from the scene)."

Jurors said they never believed the defense's contention that another man at the party, Joe Jurgensen, slashed Bowen. Jurgensen was interviewed at the scene by sheriff's deputies and had a box cutter in his possession. He was never arrested in the case.

Jurors also said most of them believed Bowen when he testified, while others thought he embellished a bit about what happened.

Ruiz said he recognizes that this was a difficult case for jurors "with a lot of confusing issues and side elements. But we believe justice was done."

Scalisi, Douglas's attorney, said the only plea arrangement offered to either defendant by prosecutors before the trial was to accept a life sentence. "The government forced us into a position were we had to try this case," he added.

Ruiz said his office "never felt comfortable plea bargaining the case against the leader of this organization and the person who we believed did the slashing."

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