Tuesday, April 26, 2011

V is for Verdict

This is the final chapter of a three-part post series about a trial on which I was an alternate juror this month. If you are joining in for the first time, please read the previous two posts, "T is for Trial by Jury," and "U is for Uncertain."

On Monday, April 18th, the jury returned for closing arguments and deliberations. Judge Vigil read the charges: four counts of homicide by vehicle and one count of causing great bodily harm. He explained again that the burden of proof fell on the prosecution and that it was the jury's job to decide if Scott Owens was "a significant cause" of the accident. If the jury had reasonable doubt as to the defendant's guilt, it must find him, "Not Guilty."

Chief Assistant District Attorney Doug Couleur went first for the prosecution: There was no doubt that Scott Owens was driving drunk in the wrong lane and caused the crash. The defense theory just didn't hold up - there was no physical evidence that the teenagers caused the crash - that was just a theory unsupported by facts. Differences in testimony by the teenage witnesses was to be expected, given the chaos at the scene that night and their states of emotion and shock. The crash re-enactment done by the prosecution expert was the only one that fit with the crash damage and the road evidence.

For the defense, it was equally simple: Scott Owens was drunk, yes, but he didn't cause the crash. The teens were driving too fast and a minor collision between their vehicles sent the red Subaru spinning into Scott's path. It explains the mysterious damage to the right rear tail light of the red Subaru and it's supported by the 911 call, in which the teens seemed to be blaming the driver of the second car for causing the crash. And, even if the two crash-reconstruction experts cancelled each other out, you couldn't ignore the testimony of the final defense witness, a man who, as Attorney Cron put it, "doesn't have a dog in this fight." Mr. Armjillo, a humble and soft-spoken mechanic and alignment expert hired by the prosecution, determined that the wheels of Scott's Jeep had to have been going straight at the time of the crash.

Mr. Cron told the jury that to say that Scott Owens was a significant cause of the accident, you must be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that he was driving in the wrong lane. "If you even hesitate," said Mr. Cron, "then you must find him not guilty."

For a week now, jurors had listened intently to witnesses and considered the evidence. Every day, the courtroom had been full on both sides of the aisle - families and friends of the deceased teens, family and friends of the defendant. Now it was in the hands of the jury. There would be heartbreak no matter what the verdict.

The judge instructed the jury to go to the deliberation room. But first, he dismissed the alternates - four people who had participated fully as jurors throughout, and who did not know they were alternates until this moment. I was one of them. My initial reaction was relief that this burden had been removed from my shoulders. But there was some let-down, having been intimately part of something for over a week and then suddenly being shut out.  The best analogy I can think of is if you are thinking about breaking up with someone, but then they beat you to it.

But the feelings of relief grew with every hour that the jury deliberated. They began at about 2 p.m. on Monday, and had not reached a verdict by 5:30 that day. They began again on Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. I was able to get updates on Twitter, as reporters covering the trial tweeted any time something happened. The day dragged on. By noon, Tuesday, there was still no verdict. Mid-afternoon, the reporter tweeted that the jury had notified the judge that they would deliberate until 5:30, and return again the next day.

Then, around 4pm, something new happened. The reporter tweeted that the jury had asked to view the vehicle evidence that was in the courtroom. This would be the right rear bumper of the red Subaru, with its unexplained damage, and the white Subaru side panel from the car the defense said had hit the red Subaru and caused the crash. I said to my husband, "That's interesting. It tells me that they are still considering the defense's theory."

Within an hour, the reporter tweeted that the jury had reached a verdict. The jury told the judge that they did not want to talk with anyone after reading the verdict, and wished to be allowed to leave the courthouse unhampered. The families were notified and given time to get back to the courtroom. After listening to a trial that lasted seven days, and having deliberated for almost 12 hours, the jury announced their verdict: Not Guilty on all counts.

The defendant and his lawyer cried. His parents cried. The families of the deceased teenagers were in shock. Headlines described the verdict as an "upset" and many in the community were stunned and even outraged by it. But opinions were strong on both sides - many felt that the teens had a role in causing the accident.

Scott Owens left court that day a free man, having spent two years in jail awaiting trial.

Many lives were changed as a result of what happened on the Old Las Vegas Highway in the early morning hours of June 28, 2009. Four children died, one was gravely injured and many more were traumatized. A young man who chose to drive while intoxicated may or may not have been the cause of their deaths. Even he doesn't know, and he will live with it all his life.

In all the details and drama of a trial, it's almost easy to forget about the young people who died. So that we don't forget, I want to tell you their names:

Alyssa Trouw
Julian Martinez
Kate Klein
Rose Simmons

June 28, 2009, 2:09 am.


  1. This was very interesting. There was a similar case in California, along a deserted road in wine country, where a girl reached back for some CD's in her car and hit 4 cyclists along the side of the road who were on a biking/wine tour. She spent time in jail but then wasn't convicted for vehicular manslaughter. Like this case, I have to say I'm glad of the innocent verdict. Scott spent 2 years in jail, he will live with this the rest of his life, why punish him further? It won't bring back his friends. So I'm glad to hear this verdict. And the parents of those were killed, as sad as that is, must realise their own children played a part in it as well. Sounds like Scott had a good lawyer, too. This was really interesting. Thanks, Melissa!

  2. These were very moving and intense posts. Certainly everyone who lived through the involvedment in this "accident" were loosers and all of these living participants have to live with this the rest of their lives. A sad loss of life all around.

  3. I think the jury decided to err on the side of compassion, and were reluctant to take away another young life. There are strong feelings though, that it sends a bad message about drinking and driving. After the verdict, the defense attorney said "nobody wins here."

  4. I am almost glad I have been away from my computer so I could read all of these blogs without waiting. I don't do well with waiting. What a powerful story. I have always wanted to be on a jury, but reading these posts has made me grateful I was never in the position to determine guilt or innocence.

  5. Jane, it's true - you never realize until it's a real thing how scary it is to sit in judgement. The Judge said, "you aren't judging the person, you are judging their actions." But still. Being on the trial was a tremedous experience, but I'm SO glad I wasn't part of the decision. Mainly I think the experience was valuable for a lesson in compassion and also as a writer!

  6. This post was riveting. Reading the true story through the end gave me chills. I'm so happy you included the names of the victims who died. What a tragedy for all.

  7. Riveting is definitely the best way to describe this post. I felt like I couldn't read fast enough to find out what happened.

    The whole situation is so tragic. I agree with the defense attorney, nobody wins.

    Thanks for sharing this, it was wonderful to read even though it is a heartbreaking tale.

  8. Thanks everyone - in a way this was "therapy" for me - all the "real" jurors got to process everything they had seen and heard, but I didn't! So this was my way of doing so. I guess that's what writing is all about...I really appreciate the comments about the writing - I challenged myself to tell it succinctly and yet keep it suspenseful.

  9. Anonymous4/27/2011

    Thank you Mellissa for sharing this story. I have so many conflicting thoughts about it. I have driven there and everyone drives very fast. Driving drunk, Driving into the other lane. Kids on a late night crazy ride. Unfortunate coming together. I have to hold the drunk driver at fault. No winners and sad. Thought provoking. Nancy


Talk to me!