Seeing the name of the new Facebook group jumped out at me after it was created last weekend: "Justice for Linda Susan Woodward".
We broke the sad story last year that Woodward, a 73-year-old Livermore resident, died in an area hospital from critical injuries suffered two months earlier in a car crash on North Livermore Avenue caused, according to police, by a young man fleeing from officers at high speeds.
Come to find out, the criminal case against now-20-year-old Sekou Abayomia Brandon – which includes a charge of murder for Woodward's death – that has toiled in the court system for more than a year with little advancement could now be ending in a truly dispiriting manner for the victim's family.
The Alameda County District Attorney's Office has offered the defendant a plea deal to accept felony counts of vehicular manslaughter and evading police causing injury in exchange for murder and other charges to be dropped, according to Woodward's family – and because of sentencing guidelines in California, the prospect of being out of prison in 2025.
"We are not happy at all … Just doesn't feel right," Woodward's daughter Tammi Woodward Vital told me by phone on Tuesday. "I think we always expected a plea bargain; just disappointed in the lack of time he'll be serving."
"We were in complete shock … utter disappointment in our judicial system," Stephanie Klino, another of Woodward's three daughters, said to me.
The DA's Office declined to comment, with a spokesperson saying they couldn't do so until a potential agreement became part of the public court record.
Brandon's defense attorney, Anne Beles, did not respond to my inquiry this week.
Though it seems a very likely outcome, the plea offer is not a done deal quite yet.
Brandon, who has pleaded not guilty to this point, has a court appearance scheduled for next Friday (Aug. 25) where the agreement would be presented to a judge, assuming the defendant accepts it. Typically, the matter is then forwarded to the Alameda County Probation Department for a report and recommendation before the judge hands down the final sentence at a future date.
That's the main reason Vital created the Facebook group, to increase public knowledge about the plea deal the family opposes and encourage people who knew their mother to write letters to the court.
The group has also served as a venue for followers to share remembrances. So many posts reminisced about "Ms. Woodward" that I initially assumed she had been a teacher.
Woodward was certainly a recognizable face to many in the Tri-Valley, though not from the classroom. Raising her girls as a single parent in Livermore, Woodward worked for years at the post office on Black Avenue in Pleasanton before retiring. She also previously served with Tri-Valley Haven, helping rescue domestic violence victims from dangerous home situations.
She was very welcoming to neighborhood kids as a parent and to her ever-growing circle of friends locally and around the world, according to her daughters.
"She was just an incredible human being that treated everybody she met like family. No one was a stranger to her," Klino said.
Woodward remained very active in retirement, enjoying bicycling, hiking, playing pickleball and traveling.
Coming out of the initial years of the COVID-19 pandemic, Woodward had "2022 just booked up with trips". The family was able to recover most of the funds for reservations already purchased, but not all. For two cruises, the family could only receive company credits. "In May I took this amazing trip, but that was supposed to be her trip," Vital said through tears.
"She was involved in everything. She wasn't some little old lady getting ready to die," Vital added about her mother in retirement.
Woodward had recently returned from a trip to Hawaii with her sister Janet Garvin not long before the crash. She was actually on her way home from having foot surgery earlier that fateful day, sitting in the backseat of her car with her foot propped up while Garvin drove, according to Vital.
As they were in the car at the bottom of the North Livermore Avenue freeway ramp, their SUV was struck by a red Lexus that police allege was speeding at nearly 65 mph while trying to elude officers around 3 p.m. Feb. 17, 2022. An officer positively identified the driver as Brandon, then 19, and he was arrested.
Woodward spent a significant amount of time in Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley before being transferred to Kaiser Permanente in Walnut Creek for what would be her final weeks. She would never recover from the severe internal injuries sustained in the wreck, dying on April 15, 2022. (To compound things, the Contra Costa County Coroner's Division misrecorded Woodward's date of death as April 16, 2022, an error that still needs to be rectified, according to Klino, who was in the room when her mother passed.)
As a result, the initial charges against Brandon were upgraded to include murder.
Woodward's family confirmed the rumors and allegations I've heard over the last year – that the investigation reportedly revealed Brandon was actually wearing an ankle monitor at the time of the crash, having been out of custody for just three months following his involvement in a robbery that turned deadly in Pleasanton as a 17-year-old in 2020.
I'm hesitant to even bring up someone's juvenile record. I support the notion of confidentiality for minors who go through the criminal justice system, especially to the extent it could help them rebuild their lives as adults. Homicide would be one of my exceptions to the rule – serial sexual predatory activity would probably be the only other.
While it's hard to know how, if at all, that past will factor into the judge's sentence if the plea deal comes to pass, it is certainly one of the many factors on the mind of Woodward's daughters and their supporters as they stare down the real possibility that the person responsible for their mother's death will serve less than four years behind bars for the crime.
While the proposed agreement would result in a sentence of seven years and eight months on paper, it would be three years and 10 months because the defendant would be eligible for double credits for time served (with the murder charge dropped; the lead count is now deemed nonviolent).
Because Brandon, a former Dublin High School student who was living in Oakley at the time of the crash, has been in the county jail since his arrest in February 2022, he could be out of custody in 2025.
To many in Woodward's circle, that doesn't seem nearly substantial enough of a sentence to adequately protect the public and rehabilitate a defendant who has reportedly been involved in two homicides as a teenager.
After the daughters were informed a plea deal was on the table, they met with the lead prosecutor and a supervisor last Friday (Aug. 11) to discuss the proposal. Some 45 people – family and friends of Woodward and her daughters – attended the meeting to hear out the DA's reps amid their displeasure.
"He was kind enough to let us all speak … but he wouldn't or couldn't change his mind," Vital told me.
Klino acknowledged that embattled first-year District Attorney Pamela Price, who is now facing a recall petition in part because critics deem her too lenient on serious criminals, didn't appear to be the one who devised this particular plea deal, but her influence as "a bleeding heart in the wrong direction kind of a person" is without a doubt all over the DA's office.
From my experience with court coverage, a murder conviction for a fatal crash can be difficult to secure at trial … but certainly not impossible. Perhaps that is at play too, for both sides of the criminal case. We'll have to see how the impartial judge weighs in next week.
Editor's note: Jeremy Walsh is the editorial director for the Embarcadero Media East Bay Division. His "What a Week" column is a recurring feature in the Pleasanton Weekly.