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Prosecution Disqualifies Judge In Case Over Bridge Standoff

The attorney for suspect EdwardKyle Van Tassel, accused of waving a handgun on an overpass while protesting the Iraq War, objects to removing the judge.

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Suspect EdwardKyle Van Tassel arrives at the courthouse on Wednesday garbed in a pinkish robe, apparently on loan from the veterans hospital where he is staying, and his hands held by a hospital-issued restraining device. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

The prosecutor in the case against EdwardKyle Van Tassel, an Iraq War veteran on trial for allegedly waving a gun on a Highway 101 overpass in November to protest the conflict, on Wednesday disqualified the presiding judge, over the objections of Van Tassel’s attorney.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Darryl Perlin said he had reasons for requesting the removal of Judge George Eskin from the case, but he declined to share them, explaining that the attorneys on each side are allowed to disqualify one judge without cause.

“I’d rather not get into it, because what’s done is done,” Perlin said outside the courtroom Wednesday. “I feel that my client — the people of the state of California — that I have an obligation to ensure that I represent their interests, and I felt that a disqualification was in our best interests.”

Eskin has made rulings in the case that Perlin has found unfavorable. For instance, in mid-November, Eskin reduced Van Tassel’s bail to $50,000 from $250,000, on condition he check himself into a mental health facility for veterans in Los Angeles.

Also, according to media reports, when Perlin attempted to imply that Van Tassel’s exhibition was the result of relationship troubles with his girlfriend and not the Iraq War, Eskin openly disagreed, saying he believed the claim from Van Tassel’s attorney that the 28-year-old Santa Barbara native was trying to make a statement about the plight of the soldiers in Iraq, the horrors of war and the presidential election, which occurred the following day.

On Wednesday, Van Tassel’s attorney, Robert Landheer, tried to persuade Eskin that the disqualification shouldn’t happen, saying the request came in too late. “It seems to me what we really have is forum shopping,” he said.

Eskin said he believed that the request came in on time, and so was obligated to honor it.

The development means that Eskin is also disqualified from presiding in the case over Van Tassel’s co-defendant, 33-year-old Aaron Jacob Levy, who is charged with aiding Van Tassel with the protest, as well as helping Van Tassel exhibit a firearm. Police said Levy drove Van Tassel to the scene that Nov. 3 morning intent on “accomplishing the task.” Like Van Tassel, Levy has pleaded not guilty.

On Nov. 3, police were flooded with 9-1-1 calls about 7 a.m. regarding a masked man on the La Cumbre Road overpass, holding a U.S. flag in one hand and a handgun in the other. Within minutes, a SWAT team and dozens of police officers swarmed the scene. When they asked Van Tassel to put down the weapon, which turned out to be unloaded, he agreed to do so if they provided a Barack Obama sign for him to affix to the chain-link fence. They found one and, using a bomb-squad robot, delivered it to him. The standoff lasted nearly four hours.

Later in November, Eskin agreed to Landheer’s request that Van Tassel — who witnessed heavy combat about four years ago and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder — be housed at a treatment center for veterans in Los Angeles instead of at the county jail.

But in mid-December, the case took a bizarre turn. Van Tassel had been caught taking trips to the house of actor Tom Cruise in an attempt to deliver a letter asking the actor to speak out about the plight of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The lapse in judgment caused Perlin to request that Van Tassel be sent back to county jail, according to media reports. On Dec. 10, Eskin denied the request, instead issuing a restraining order prohibiting Van Tassel from trying to contact Cruise.

Shortly after, Van Tassel was admitted to a locked psychiatric ward in the veterans hospital.

On Wednesday, Van Tassel arrived garbed in a pinkish robe, apparently on loan from the veterans hospital. Although his hands were held by a hospital-issued restraining device, Van Tassel managed to clasp them as if in prayer during the proceeding, as he did in previous hearings.

After the judge was disqualified, Van Tassel said he was disappointed.

“I don’t understand,” he said, while eating a bologna sandwich for lunch in the outdoor courtyard, his hands still held by the restraining device. “He being a vet, I hope, had nothing to do with it. The only thing I know why the judge would be disqualified is that he himself is a veteran.”

Van Tassel also said he wants to deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder by talking about his experience with the media.

He described a grisly combat scene in which he tried to rescue his buddy from a burning Humvee.

“I lifted him out of the Humvee, and I thought he was a little light,” he said. “It’s because I only had the top half of his body. And his blood was flowing like water.”

After the disqualification of Eskin, the case went to Judge Brian Hill. He reaffirmed Van Tassel’s $50,000 bail and scheduled the preliminary hearing for Van Tassel and Levy for Feb. 5.

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