Killing of alleged molester turns mother into heroine

April 07, 1993|By Jane Meredith Adams | Jane Meredith Adams,Contributing writer

SONORA, Calif. -- Mass support for the vigilante killing of an accused child molester has gripped this tiny town in the Sierra foothills, leading legal observers to question whether the woman charged with the crime could ever be impartially tried here.

Ellena S. Nesler, 40, has been charged with murder. She allegedly walked up to Daniel Driver in a courtroom Friday and shot him point-blank in the back of his head with a .25-caliber semi-automatic pistol.

Mr. Driver, 35, was sitting during a break in a preliminary hearing in nearby Jamestown. He was accused of molesting four children, including Mrs. Nesler's son, and Mrs. Nesler was scheduled to testify.

Mr. Driver died after the shooting, and Mrs. Nesler almost immediately became a heroine in Sonora -- cheered by courtroom supporters who sent flowers to her jail cell. At her arraignment Monday in Sonora, backers held up signs reading "Free Ellie" and "Nice Shot Ellie" and sang religious songs such as "Jesus Loves Me."

Yesterday, the support continued. Several defense funds have been set up, and, far from the sophisticated urban debate of the rehabilitation of sex offenders, residents in this former Northern California mining town expressed a gut-level satisfaction with the slaying.

"I think he deserved to die," said Shana Stanton, a waitress who was sitting on a bench outside the courthouse yesterday.

Ms. Stanton said she was angry that Ms. Nesler's bail had ben set at $500,000 when Mr. Driver's bail had been set at $20,000, even though he had a prior conviction for child molestation.

In 1983, Mr. Driver was convicted in Santa Clara County and was placed on probation without serving time.

"There's no justice in that," said Ms. Stanton.

Tuolumne County District Attorney Michael Knowles said the alleged molestations occurred between 1986 and 1989, sometimes at children's homes and sometimes at a church camp where he was a handyman.

Mrs. Nesler's arraignment was continued until next Tuesday so she could find a criminal attorney.

A first-degree murder conviction carries a 25-year-to-life sentence in California.

Obtaining a change of venue for the murder trial would be difficult for the prosecuting state attorney general, said Michael Sweet, executive director of the California District Attorney's association.

Typically, it is the defendant who requests a change of venue, arguing that he or she cannot obtain a fair trial in the community. Mrs. Nesler, who smiled broadly at supporters gathered around the Sonora courthouse Monday, would seem unlikely to request such a change. Her civil attorney, Blair White, would not comment.

Mr. Sweet said the prosecution could request moving the trial only after it convinced the judge that the jury pool had been exhausted with no jurors willing to say they would be impartial toward Mrs. Nesler.

But jurors don't always say what's on their mind.

"They lie," said Mario Conte, Vice Chair of the Criminal Law section of the State Bar of California. "Sometimes they really really want to get on a jury. They want to make something happen."

This year, for the second year in a row, legislation has been introduced in California seeking to give prosecutors the same clout in requesting a change in venue as defenders. The issue came into focus last year, when prosecutors were unable to move the trial involving four Los Angeles police officers and motorist Rodney King.

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