An extraordinary trial
The jury selection process was painstakingly methodical and 86 people had been eliminated before the defense challenged, thanked and excused me. I was disappointed, but now for a different reason. From what little we were told about the case, I was intrigued.
Since I was challenged off the jury, I decided to attend and observe the trial as a private citizen. Being present in Courtroom II of the Eagle County Justice Center during that trial was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
For me, the difference between courtroom dramas as seen on TV or in the movies and what I experienced during that trial was the difference between riding a chair lift and skiing through 14 inches of fresh powder.
The trial could have been scripted in Hollywood. There were more twists, turns, recantations and conflicting testimony than I would have imagined possible. Perhaps what transpired is commonplace, but I was mesmerized by the proceedings in and out of the courtroom. While it’s not my intent to add to the controversy. The following is what I came away with.
I watched a man accused of second degree murder represent himself for reasons we’ll never know for certain, although every person I spoke with during the recesses had a strong opinion about it. Those who supported the defendant decried the DA’s office and the state for any number of reasons. Those favoring the state’s case criticized Mr. Thompson for his inability to get along with the public defender. But whatever the true reasons, it added to the bizarre nature of the case.
Several people who lived in the apartment building where the murder took place were called to testify. Much of the testimony was conflicting and on occasion it even changed from question to question during cross-examination by the prosecutor. Obviously several people must have forgotten about “to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth. S”
While the expert witness for the defense proffered a plausible theory to support the innocence of Mr. Thompson, he diminished his credibility in the manner in which he ever so slightly exaggerated his credentials and then by admitting to the timing of his conclusions when cross-examined by Ms. Brenda Parks, the deputy district attorney.
The expert’s Web site indicated that a renowned French doctor and forensic expert was a member of his staff. However, Ms. Parks pointed out that this French staff member had been dead for a number of years and the expert witness had never even met him. This expert also testified under cross-examination that he had drawn his conclusion that Mr. Thompson was innocent last April 19, then admitted that he never saw the physical evidence until this past Sept. 6. So much for the defense’s hired expert.
On the final day of the trial and minutes before the defendant was to take the stand, Mr. Thompson reversed his earlier position and chose not to testify. This was clearly his constitutional right. However, this 11th hour change of heart quite possibly altered the prosecutor’s strategy. With that said, the defendant who had no legal training and his sister, who acted as his assistant, did a most credible job in the defense.
Both the judge and the prosecutor were put in an interesting situation because the defendant was without counsel.
On the other hand, Judge Hart was for the most part very tolerant whenever the defendant failed to adhere to proper court protocol, which was frequent, as one might expect.
It appeared to me that 12 of the 13 jurors were focused on the matter at hand – many were taking notes and it was heartening to see that the horror stories we’ve all heard about jurors falling asleep in the jury box did not occur.
The deputy district attorney, Ms. Brenda Parks, professionally represented the citizens of the 5th Judicial District. She was thorough and passionate in presenting her case. While she raised a number of objections during the trial, she was doing her job to make certain that the case was tried within the ambit of proper court protocol. More importantly, she did masterful work in overcoming several notable deficiencies that occurred at the crime scene investigation.
In her closing argument Ms. Parks told the jury, “We’ll never really know all the details of this case. S” – which was quite accurate. After all, the only eyewitness was the defendant himself. Unfortunately, a clear memory of what transpired the night of the crime doesn’t comport with his blood alcohol level of .275 a full three hours after the murder.
Much of the time the entire milieu of the case strained credulity, and I sensed that most of the gallery felt the jury could go either way.
A jury of 12 honest men and women concluded that Mr. Thompson was guilty of manslaughter. Therefore, justice was served in the eyes of the state.
Murder cases are not the norm in Eagle County. However, I strongly suggest that if you are ever called to jury service, please ignore the initial “How do I get out of this” inclination and get off of the chairlift and into the deep powder.
Being a part of the American criminal justice system is a privilege, a duty, and more than worth your time.
Butch Mazzuca of Singletree can be reached at email@example.com