In the words of one shooting victim’s sister, court officials sequestered the wrong group this week.
Jurors were holed up in an Omaha hotel after a brawl and a shooting overshadowed Day One of Charles Trotter’s trial in the shooting deaths of rival gang members Dexter Joseph and Marcel Lovejoy.
But after a judge declared a mistrial in Trotter’s case Friday, Lovejoy’s sister said trial witnesses should have been the ones tucked away.
“The jurors had nothing to worry about,” Cachet Lovejoy said. “The people they should have been worried about were ones that have been tampered with.”
With the mistrial declaration — a ruling that happens about once every two years in major Omaha cases — prosecutors will have to start over in their quest to prove that Trotter, a Crip gang member, killed two rival Blood members, Joseph and Lovejoy, near 100th and Fort Streets on Jan. 3, 2015. Judge Leigh Ann Retelsdorf reset the trial for June 13. Trotter, 18, is expected to remain in jail until trial.
Trotter’s trial this week hadn’t gotten far before it headed south.
Prosecutors’ first witness went from being forthright as he answered general questions Wednesday to mumbling “I don’t remember” to nearly every pointed question Thursday about the shooting. Expected to identify Trotter as the shooter, the man instead told jurors that he didn’t know who shot the men.
One attorney said he could see a dramatic change in the witness’s body language from Wednesday to Thursday. The man told prosecutors that he had received threatening phone calls Wednesday night.
Prosecutors say they take steps to try to protect their witnesses. In this case, a county attorney’s investigator escorted the witness to and from the courthouse and stayed by his side throughout.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine declined to detail what other steps are taken. He said prosecutors deal with witness intimidation in many cases and are determined to prevent anyone from undermining the justice system.
“It’s always been our mantra to say, ‘We want people to come forward; we want them to tell the truth,’ ” Kleine said. “It’s not always that simple.
“It’s very obvious there were some things that took place here in the courthouse. Everybody’s doing everything they can to make sure that people from the outside can’t manipulate or won’t be able to manipulate the system.”
Though it lasted just two days, Trotter’s trial had more action than most two-week trials:
» At the trial’s first noon recess Wednesday, a brawl erupted after spectators spilled out of the courtroom. At least 12 people — many from rival gangs — squared off, punching, kicking, kneeing, even choking.
» Also Wednesday, an Omaha man was shot and killed near his home near 16th Street and Victor Avenue after trying earlier to attend the trial on the fourth floor. Omaha police said 22-year-old Jarrell Haynes had had an “altercation” with a man near a lower-level entryway of the courthouse, a confrontation that they said was not related to the Trotter trial.
» Early Wednesday afternoon, Judge Retelsdorf interviewed individual jurors to find out whether the brawl would affect their ability to weigh Trotter’s guilt or innocence. The nine women and five men said it would not. Retelsdorf excused one woman because of family issues.
The judge then took the rare step of sequestering the jury and confiscating their cellphones and electronic devices. The judge wanted to ensure that they wouldn’t be exposed to reporters’ accounts of the brawl or shooting.
Haynes — who law enforcement officials say was associated with the Victor Street Bloods — was shot to death at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday when he went outside to smoke a cigarette at his grandmother’s house, 1634 Victor Ave.
A law enforcement official said Friday that the killing of Haynes — a cousin of victim Marcel Lovejoy — is not believed to be connected to Trotter’s trial.
Haynes had had his share of conflicts. He had tried to take the fall for another man by claiming that a stolen firearm was his. After he was charged with possessing a stolen gun, prosecutors were in discussions with him about testifying against two men in gun cases.
However, Haynes never showed up for his interviews with prosecutors in those cases.
At Trotter’s trial, prosecutors John Alagaban and Tressa Alioth clearly were scrambling as their first witness clammed up. After that, the prosecutors called routine witnesses, including a detective, a crime-scene investigator, a police officer and a firefighter who responded to the scene.
In other words, the prosecution’s case never really got off the ground before it ended Friday.
Cachet Lovejoy, 31, said she was “livid” that a mistrial was declared and the trial delayed.
“It’s been over a year with no justice,” she said.
Joseph’s brother, Morris Joseph, 29, said he was discouraged by the delay but still confident in the legal process.
“I want to see (Trotter) suffer just like my brother suffered when he was killed,” Morris Joseph said. “It’s just taking some time, though.”
Of the major trials at the Douglas County Courthouse, about one case ends in mistrial every year or two. The reasons vary: a witness ventures out of bounds by testifying about other crimes a defendant committed. A court official reveals a defendant’s criminal past. Jurors are poisoned by outside information that is damning to the defendant.
Trotter’s attorney, Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley, said he hadn’t seen another case get so sticky so quickly.
“It’s a mess,” Riley said. “There’s so many issues right now that we didn’t anticipate. We felt it was just better to start over.”
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