Caution: This column is for mature audiences only, as it deals with some very unseemly matters.
I served on my first jury ever last week, and wouldn’t you know I end up in the middle of a two-and-a-half-day rape trial.
I’ve been called for jury duty several times before, but have never been impaneled. That usually has something to do with my job as a journalist, but my profession didn’t seem to phase either of the attorneys involved, especially since I had practically zero recollection of any stories regarding this particular case.
Other than the names of the attorneys, I will refrain from using names in this column in order to protect the innocent, the not-so-innocent and the flat-out stupidity of the principal parties involved, though anybody with a tiny bit of enterprise can find that information out by perusing other pages of this edition.
This case was a classic “he-said, she-said,” with so many twists and gray areas that it was a conundrum for this jury of five men and seven women. In the end, after about five hours of deliberation, we ended up as a hung jury and a mistrial was declared. There will be a hearing Aug. 11 to determine if the state wishes to pursue another trial, but I’ll address that issue later.
This whole mess started Dec. 31, 2012, when a 34-year-old Montesano man who, according to testimony, was in an “open marriage” and decided to seek sex in exchange for $1,000. He put an ad on Craigslist, which was answered by a 23-year-old Tacoma woman, who admitted on the stand that at the time she was struggling with finances and alcoholism. The defendant admitted to using a false identity on Craigslist.
They agreed to meet the next day at a grocery store in McCleary, where he purchased a box of wine and the two proceeded — in separate cars — to a very secluded, rural home set on 84 acres, off Mox-Chehalis Road.
There, the pair chatted in the living room for a bit before heading upstairs, where two bedrooms were located.
At that point, the plaintiff began to disrobe, but asked for the money prior to sex.
The defendant left the room briefly then returned and stated that there was no money and that he had used a false identity.
This is where things got dicey.
According to two defendant statements to police — which he granted voluntarily without the presence of an attorney — the woman made a move for her purse, probably to get up and leave, if you ask me, because as far as I’m concerned there’s no consent in an alleged prostitution situation until money changes hands.
But the defendant claims that he was worried that she was going for a weapon and, in response, told her he had a knife. She expressed fear about the knife, he stated to a detective, so he removed both the knife and her purse (and cell phone) from the room. The victim disputes that and says he threatened her with the knife and said he also “had a gun” in the house.
He says they then engaged in consensual sex. She says he raped her.
Soon after, he escorted her from the house and from all accounts she got out of there like the proverbial bat out of hell, side swiping a power pole as she tried to navigate the dark, unfamiliar gravel and dirt roads toward something resembling civilization.
She did not stop until she got to west Olympia, where she found a well-lit gas station and immediately called 911.
Having heard the 911 recording as evidence more than once, I can honestly say this young lady sounded genuinely terrorized, unless she has the acting chops of Meryl Streep. In that recording, she said more than once that she was raped, that she was scared that that the defendant had threatened her. She, by the way, was 5-foot-7, 110 pounds; the defendant 5-10, 230 pounds. She was taken to an Olympia hospital, where she had a “rape kit” done and was questioned by a detective from the Grays Harbor Sheriff’s Office.
It was also around this time that — concerned she might be prosecuted for solicitation or that her “embarrassing” story might get out — that she signed a “waiver of non-prosecution” and wrote out and signed a statement that she did not want to pursue the matter.
But in cases like these, it’s the Prosecutor’s Office that decides whether to really press charges, so the detective pursued the case and eventually got the victim to agree. Over a period of more than a year, she gave several statements, several of which differed in detail from those that came prior. The defendant gave two statements within several days after the alleged crime.
He was formally charged in March of this year — more than 14 months after the incident — and the case went to trial last week.
The jury heard about seven hours of testimony and arguments before we were given the case for deliberation last Wednesday afternoon.
To say the least, it was a quandary that caused me at least one almost sleepless night and had me pacing like a caged cat for hours on end — ask my family and friends.
In the end, I decided that something very bad took place in that cabin and that the defendant was guilty of something. He was charged with first-degree rape (with a deadly weapon) but the jury also had the option of considering second- or third-degree rape. But you could not consider lesser charges, unless first deadlocked on higher charges.
I was proud to serve with my fellow jurors, whom I felt were all thoughtful and diligent in their duties, but we all come from different backgrounds and life experiences, and I could see from the beginning that this was going to be a difficult case to get 12 people to agree upon.
I was correct.
Deputy Prosecutor Katie Svoboda and defense attorney David Mistachkin both did admirable jobs presenting their case and were a juxtaposition of styles. Svoboda is very staid and matter-of-fact, while Mistachkin is quite theatrical and flamboyant. He earned every penny in attorney fees.
Based on the judge’s instructions to the jury — which were voluminous, to say the least — deliberations focused on a few major issues. And the “reasonable doubt” bar is a high one for the prosecution to overcome, especially on a case such as this.
• The victim’s credibility. Some jurors — all women, by the way — obviously did not like her or believe her. Some believed her reaction on the 911 recording could have been caused by the realization that she had just had unprotected sex with a total stranger for no money. Admittedly, she made many stupid decisions throughout this ordeal.
• The knife. There was a lot of discussion as to whether it was ever produced or used as an actual or implied threat.
• Whether or not the defendant behaved in a predatory manner or was just plain stupid. I believe there was a lot of both.
We voted numerous times, but by late Thursday morning we decided it was time to fish or cut bait.
First, we voted 11-1 in favor of acquittal on the first-degree rape charge because there was too much “reasonable doubt” about the use or implied use of the weapon. I was relieved that one older female juror was adamant on this charge and stuck by her guns, because I was darn certain a crime had been committed and that the defendant had acted with a predatory and premeditated fashion.
On the charge of second-degree rape, we were essentially split down the middle. I voted guilty.
On the charge of third-degree rape, it was a 9-3 vote in favor of a guilty verdict. Close, but no cigar, as they say.
We determined we were hopelessly deadlocked at that point and let the judge know.
In the end, I came out of the ordeal much more educated and fascinated with our justice system, which is flawed but still the best thing I know of when it comes to such matters. But it was also extremely frustrating, because I was convinced — beyond a reasonable doubt — that a crime was committed. Still, it was well worth my time in service to the system.
Charging second-degree rape might have made more sense in this case. Pursuing first-degree rape charges here seemed to breed indecision and confusion.
On a broader scale, this case was something of an indictment of the the Internet, not our justice system.
While the Internet brings many advantages to society — certainly in my profession — it also allows way too much anonymous networking among naive and unscrupulous people. Like fire and gasoline, that’s a volatile mixture that often ends in ugly results.
David Haerle is a paginator and the business and features reporter for The Vidette.