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Deputy Public Defender Gabriel Bassan isn’t shying away from his client’s prior convictions for attempted murder and arson with great bodily injury. Instead, Bassan is making them the linchpin of his defense in a felony weapons trial that could send Charley Charles to prison for life. Charles “is the man who became infamous — notorious — for setting fire to his own child back in 1983,” Bassan told a San Francisco jury in opening statements Thursday. It’s a bold strategy. The memory of Charles’ crime against his son more than 20 years ago so moved one potential juror during voir dire that he burst into tears in the judge’s chambers. Prosecutor Cheryl Matthews promised, in her opening, to show the jury a videotaped police interview in which Charles told police after a 2001 arrest that he’d illegally bought a gun three years before. They’d find it loaded, he told them, in his T-shirt drawer. They found it exactly as he’d described, Matthews said, along with a fanny pack full of bullets. He may “not — not — possess a firearm or ammunition,” she said, briefly noting his 1983 convictions. But it was Bassan who reminded the jury of some of the grisly details of his client’s earlier crime. He described Charles taking his son to Southern California without his ex-wife’s permission and going out to buy kerosene and sleeping pills “in a moment of insanity” while allegedly distraught over a custody disagreement. Bassan’s strategy had him walking a thin line with San Francisco Superior Court Judge Cynthia Lee, who abruptly stopped him at that point and called a recess. Outside the presence of the jury, she admonished him not to “re-litigate” what happened in the 1980s. Bassan said his client wasn’t suggesting the convictions were wrong. But the facts from 1983 explain the “unbelievable notoriety” that stemmed from news coverage of the case, Bassan asserted, and established why Charles — who used to go by the last name Rothenberg — feared retribution from complete strangers. Judge Lee cautioned Bassan to steer clear of getting into Charles’ state of mind in the 1980s but allowed him to describe the media’s coverage over the prosecution’s objection. Back in front of the jury, Bassan said he could not describe “how horribly mutilated” Charles’ son was, adding that his pictures were in the newspapers for months. “A book came out. And then a television movie � And then the same chants. ‘Baby burner, baby burner,’” he told the jurors. Even prison officials knew Charles’ safety was in danger, Bassan contends, because they nearly always kept him segregated from the general prison population before he was paroled in 1990. When he wasn’t segregated, he was attacked, Bassan said. He also claims that after Charles was freed, he was once taunted and shot at on a downtown street. Though Charles wasn’t hurt, Bassan asserts his client was twice brushed off by police when he tried to report the incident. So he bought a gun, Bassan said. “It was technically illegal,” he said, but “the evidence will show that � he had no legal, reasonable alternative.” Outside the presence of the jury, Matthews objected to Bassan’s “trying to portray the media as the devil here.” In front of the jury, Bassan seemed bent on stealing her thunder by offering to stipulate on some points, like the fact that Charles lived in the apartment where the gun was found and that his fingerprints show he was the one convicted in 1983. The stakes are high for both sides. The charges that Charles faces for being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition would normally carry a maximum of 5 years according to the San Francisco DA’s office. But District Attorney Kamala Harris is seeking 25-to-life under California’s Three Strikes law — something she and her predecessor have rarely done when, as in this case, the alleged third strike isn’t defined as serious or violent. Back in 1983, Charles pleaded guilty. He was acquitted of attempted murder in another case in 1996, when Alameda County prosecutors accused him of shooting a man in the head. Since his 2001 arrest, San Francisco prosecutors have pursued nine charges, accusing Charles of the weapons violations as well as various frauds such as obtaining credit cards in other people’s names and cashing a neighbor’s tax refund checks. The fraud charges are pending. The DA’s office also initially accused him of setting a fire outside the apartment door of a neighbor, but a grand jury declined to indict him on that.

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