Day Three of the trial of D.J. Bell on child kidnapping charges was dominated by repeated dispute between the judge and the defense as to what constitutes a valid defense. Stories from the Deseret News, the Salt Lake Tribune, and KSL Channel 5. KSL news video embedded below:
Apparently, Third District Court Judge Paul Maughan is a strict role constructionist who believes a defense attorney should stick exclusively to defending a client and never try to present a client as a victim. Judge Maughan and defense attorney Susanne Gustin have jousted back and forth about this issue throughout the entire trial. Finally, Judge Maughan excused the jury briefly so he could admonish her about her seeing continued inability to understand that her job was to defend Bell and not go outside established boundaries. "The court has told you repeatedly, Mr. Bell is here as a defendant, not as a victim," Maughan told Gustin. He also told Gustin, "You seem to have trouble being here to defend Mr. Bell, not prosecute the neighbors. It's delaying this court, it's delaying this trial and it's disadvantaging everyone here. The only reason you're in trouble is you don't seem to understand how to follow the court's orders. The assault is not an issue in this trial".
In response, Gustin told the judge she has been trying to follow the rules and does not want to get in trouble. But she said it was difficult to question witnesses about what happened that morning surrounding the children without getting into what happened to Bell. During the trial, Gustin has repeatedly asked the judge if she could approach the bench to show him questions she intended to ask a witness on the stand, but Maughan has repeatedly declined. So Maughan himself is contributing to the confusion, failing to understand that this is one of those unusual cases where a defendant is not only accused of a crime, but was also a victim of a crime committed against him during the same sequence of events. Consequently, it is difficult to maintain a wall of separation between the two, and the judge ought to be willing to give the defense some guidance when asked.
A parade of defense witnesses testified on Bell's behalf. Sean Lyman testified that he awoke inside Bell's house and heard Bell's voice saying, "Come on, let's try and find your mommy." Another witness, Matt Lewis, testified that the neighbors held a loud party on the night in question and that young children were running around late at night. And a third witness, Laura Brzezinski, who owned the house and had Bell as a tenant, said she had observed two children from the neighbor's house come over to her place repeatedly. One helped her with yardwork. She asked the others not to play in her yard when she was not home, and the children typically were not supervised by their parents or any adults.
In addition, a St. Mark's hospital emergency room doctor, Debra Martin, testified that police brought Bell to the hospital, where she stitched a laceration on his forehead, noted that he had blood behind his right eardrum and had suffered a concussion as a result of being beaten on the head.
The Salt Lake City Weekly reports that during the afternoon session, D.J. Bell was prepared to go on the stand and testify on his own behalf. However, his other defense attorney, Roger Kraft, became embroiled in an extensive dispute with Judge Maughan about statements Bell made to police immediately after the attack, when Bell was still concussive and hadn't yet recovered all his marbles. Prosecutors are apparently interpreting one of Bell's statements as a confession.
Craft said it is "crucial to [Bell's] defense that he had a head injury that caused confusion ... during an interview with police." Craft said Bell was first attacked in his car port where his head was slammed into pavement then was dragged "by his hair" into the backyard. Maughan said the "dragged by his hair" detail was definitely not admissible. Discussing details of the attacks, Craft said, goes to Bell's "emotional frame of mind" at the time of the statement. The testimony would also reveal that a state's witness was lying, Craft said, which may cast doubt on her testimony in other areas. "We have to be able to say where these injuries occurred," Craft argued. "They dragged him into the backyard." But Judge Maugham was firm in his refusal to allow the last detail to be introduced.
After that exchange, Craft then pulled Bell from the witness stand, reserving the right to put him up again later. The trial is scheduled to end by the close of business on Friday September 25th, although that doesn't mean a verdict will be rendered by that time.
Analysis: I don't believe the judge is biased against D.J. Bell, but he's trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. He's inhibiting the ability of Bell's defense counsel to mount an effective defense, and in the remote case that the jury convicts Bell, will make it easy to get the verdict overturned on appeal. There is no way to separate the child kidnapping case from the assault allegation, since the veracity of Bell's statements to the police were adversely impacted by the assault.
Mainstream grass-roots public opinion is clearly shifting in favor of D.J. Bell. Here's a comment posted to the Deseret News story from someone who also identifies himself as a conservative LDS:
I am LDS & Conservative | 1:11 p.m. Sept. 24, 2009
I am against the state recognition of same-gender unions. HOWEVER, I see NO problem whatsoever in this attorneys actions. JUSTICE is NOT being served because of the D.A. who was reelected. [referring to SL County DA Lohra "Legally Blonde" Miller]
I am against this couples beliefs as much as anyone could be but I CERTAINLY believe in their rights to life and am disgusted with their treatment. I hope justice is served. I hope that all parties involved with serve time in jail as if they had beaten someone from a 'different' group.
Had it been a bishops wife or a general authority the DA would have made sure that they would have been in prison for years. Why do these men deserve better than that? They do not! It's one thing to act while upset, it's another thing to return to the house later and beat someone half to death.
This is the problem with our justice system. (And I am NOT talking about the hate-crime issue now) We are so perverted in our logic today that you see the innocent jailed and the criminals free.
Again, I am LDS. I am Conservative. - Please do not re-elect this D.A. again.
If this is representative of conservatives, then there's an excellent chance D.J. Bell will be acquitted. And Lohra "Legally Blonde" Miller will have even more egg on her face.