By Jeff Suzuki (originally published December 6, 2021)

Summary: The people who were supposed to advocate for him let him down. The criminal justice system depends on the ignorance and silence of the public to regard people like Brian as violent criminals. We present Brian’s side of the story to break this silence. His sentence will be finalized on November 29th. 

Update as of December 2, 2021: Due to the outpouring of support from community leaders and the Los Gatos Anti-Racism Coalition, the judge decided not to send Brian Oden to prison. For those who took the time to sign the petition, know that it made all the difference.

After a long day of work, Brian had begun his drive home. It was dark. As he moved toward the freeway onramp, he proceeded as usual— the light turned green. But as he moved past the light, he heard a noise. It happened so fast and didn’t make an impact that jarred his car. The next thing he realized was that he was in the middle of the freeway and pulled over. On the side of the freeway he realized his car was damaged pretty badly and felt immediate danger from incoming traffic. This moment is when a thought entered his mind: what if he had just hit a person? But could hitting a person be that quiet? He doesn’t know what hitting a person sounds like. He hyperventilated in his car, panicked and scared. He arrived home and called his police, while notifying his family — half an hour after the incident including driving time. He soon found afterward that he grazed a person on the side of his vehicle. 

According to Brian, he wasn’t sure how the man likely crossed the street without seeing the oncoming traffic. And in the black of night, Brian couldn’t see him and depended on the traffic lights instead. I can imagine myself in every step of Brian’s encounter. The confusion. The panic. The hesitation to call the police. Almost anyone who drives can imagine being in this nightmare scenario. But few can imagine themselves being charged with a felony and thrown into prison for what amounts to a traffic accident. To make matters worse, Brian has Crohn’s disease. In an overflowing prison system with strained medical resources and a COVID-19 outbreak, Brian can literally die if he goes to jail. 

The legal proceedings against Brian began shortly after the accident with the victim wanting to press charges. Brian’s family lives on the brink of homelessness. He works long hours in multiple gig jobs to provide for his elderly and sick parents and helps to care for his brother’s children. While behind bars, he cannot provide for them. And right now, he cannot afford a private attorney. So, he had to depend on a public defender. 

On paper, the role of a public defender is a noble one. They provide free legal defense to those who cannot afford it. But while some public defenders are skilled, they are often overworked, underpaid, unspecialized, and variable in their quality. There is an element of chance in being provided a good one who has the time, energy, and skill to advocate for their clients.

The system initially gave Brian a decent public defender. Brian’s attorney spent time understanding the details of Brian’s case and strategizing with him. But with the pandemic and new casework, Brian’s lawyer got reassigned and the system provided a substitute. With a looming court date, his new lawyer scheduled a meeting with him. Because this was his first time speaking with her, Brian believed this meeting would just be an introductory one to discuss details of his case. But the meeting was more like an ambush.

Without any prior conversation with him, his new lawyer had negotiated a plea deal. Instead of receiving 5 years in prison and 2 felonies for reckless driving and hit-and-run, he would receive 45 days in prison and the reckless driving felony instead. Brian rejected the deal. But she was stubborn. She continually pressured him for two hours, tunnel visioned on this outcome. Repeatedly, Brian rejected the deal. He believed that he could convince a jury that he was conforming to traffic laws to lessen his sentence. But she was relentless— she wasn’t taking no for an answer. To Brian, it seemed like she wanted to get this case done and over with— another task crossed out on her to-do list. And with some precise combination of pressure, anxiety, and guilt, Brian folded. He accepted the plea. And with that task crossed off her list, the system had decided to label Brian a violent criminal and throw him behind bars. 

The facts of the case hadn’t even been determined yet, including where the victim was struck, how fast Brian was going, whether the crosswalk signal was given, and a slew of other details that matter. Brian’s plea deal parallels the experience of countless BIPOC and poorer folk in America. Trials are often messy and expensive. For many public defenders, it is more convenient to convince their clients to accept their criminal status than it is to actually fight for them. 

A couple of members of LGARC called Matt Braker, the Deputy DA of Santa Clara. He claimed that there’s really not much more to be discussed because Brian already took the plea. To them, further information about the incident itself does not matter. Brian will be sentenced 45 days in prison with a felony on his record because he pleaded guilty; it’s simply too late… except when it isn’t.

Former San Jose City Council candidate Jennifer Higgins drove under the influence of benzodiazepine and fatally struck a 66-year-old pedestrian with her SUV. She pleaded no contest to felony vehicular manslaughter. But a judge later reduced this to a misdemeanor, which leaves her record after two years of good behavior. Along with this, she was given a relatively light punishment of 6 months in prison. But she never ended up serving her jail time at all. Instead she was under house arrest, permitted to leave her home only for necessary activities like work or medical appointments. She was actually found partying in LA last month in October. In summary, the system was empathetic and lenient in her case.

The difference with Brian is that he is not a wealthy real estate agent nor does he have the same strings to pull within the community. The criminal justice system is far more empathetic and generous to people like Higgins because it is capable of empathizing with her. However, it will process people like Brian through a spreadsheet and spit him out in jail. Brian should not be regarded as a violent criminal. He does not have a prior criminal record. He is a valued member of our community here in Los Gatos, well-known to the residents and businesses here. He is known as a sincere, generous, and hard working man. He’s a kind person who encourages adults and youth alike to express who they are and to look out for each other. 

So what do we do? We share this information. We try to spread it as wide and far as possible. Share this article on your account. The criminal justice system depends on the ignorance and silence of the public to regard people like Brian as violent criminals. The more noise we make, the harder it will be for them to finalize his sentence. 

Sign this petition to demonstrate your support for Brian: 

Share this. We got until the 29th of the month. Let’s make some noise.