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Supervisors thank Colusa County for Rivera trial assistance

The Merced County Board of Supervisors honored Colusa County on Tuesday, crediting Colusa’s district attorney with saving Merced taxpayers tens — if not hundreds — of thousands of dollars in expenses stemming from Tao Rivera’s capital murder trial.

Rivera, who shot and killed Merced Police Officer Stephan Gray in 2004, was tried on a change-of-venue order in Colusa last year. The seven-week trial ended in May with a death sentence for Rivera.

“The murder of Stephan Gray stunned this community,” Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II said during Tuesday’s board meeting. “The people of Merced County, whether they know it or not, are in (Colusa’s) debt.”

From security and transportation to a courtroom and a judge, Colusa generously provided whatever Morse’s office required, he said.

Morse credited Colusa’s District Attorney, John Poyner, and its chief investigator, Dave Markss, for saving Merced County countless taxpayer dollars. Besides allowing Morse and co-prosecutor Mark Bacciarini free run of his office and its staff, Poyner served as a jury selection consultant for the prosecution.

“Since he knows almost everyone in Colusa County, he gave us many insights into who should be on the jury and who shouldn’t,” Morse recalled. “He was a mentor, a host, a colleague, a strategist, a dining companion and a confidant throughout the entire ordeal.”

Poyner and Markss attended the brief ceremony, as did Gray’s widow and two of his three children. “I know Merced County appreciated what we did,” Poyner said. “This became an important verdict to us too, really.”

Board chair Kathleen Crookham told Poyner: “If you ever need help, you can call on Merced County.”

Morse also thanked his own staff and credited his predecessor, Gordon Spencer, with making arrangements to hold the trial in Colusa.

Merced County spent at least $1.4 trying Rivera, now 25, county spokeswoman Katie Albertson said. Under existing law, Merced is entitled to $533,000 in reimbursement from the state for costs stemming from the trial. The county submitted a request for that reimbursement earlier this month, Albertson said.

A bill introduced last year by Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, sought to reimburse the county for the entire cost. The bill failed.

Gray is the only Merced police officer to have been killed in the line of duty. He was 34. Rivera, an admitted gang member, shot Gray twice after Gray stopped his car in a central Merced neighborhood in April 2004.

Rivera’s defense team, which was paid for by Merced County, admitted before the trial began that Rivera was guilty of the shooting. But they argued Gray’s death wasn’t premeditated murder.