Friday, July 27, 2007

Comments from the jurors (or, the house that Ron Tussing built, Part V)

Tucked into today's Gazette is a nice piece of journalism that involved reporters successfully being able to talk to two of the jurors in the Feuerstein suit against the Billings Police Department. You know, the one that cost the city $1.3 million. To regular readers who wonder why we're spending so much time talking about this case, well, just chalk it up to Billings being a town where there isn't a lot of excitement going on -- forgive us.

Seriously, though, it is a very big deal in Billings, primarily because it isn't over with (that class-action lawsuit that is almost certainly coming,) and because a whole lot of Billings residents aren't going to trust the people charged with cleaning things up, starting with our mayor.

Current police chief St. John sounds like a reasonable guy, and his responses in the press have been appropriate. While we are inclined to think it reasonable to give him a chance to enact reforms, all one has to do is read the comments sections in the Gazette to see that there are a lot of people who think that St. John is tainted -- or at least sure to be mistrusted -- since he was in the department at the time that all of this happened.

There would certainly be nothing wrong with St. John stepping down and asking the city to appoint a new, outside, chief of police, but it doesn't yet seem like time to be talking about demanding that, as some are.

Anyway, back to the jurors. The two who spoke (one on condition of anonymity) to the Gazette pretty much confirmed much of what Montana Headlines has been surmising based on what is publicly known of the case, and also some new and interesting things.

1. The decisions were "Almost 100 percent on all counts." So these were not close votes (it takes 8 of 12 to make an award. Some of the votes were unanimous.

2. Most jurors wouldn't talk about the case. One of the jurors who did speak "feared possible repercussions in the sensitive case," which reinforces what we have said about the lack of common sense that Mayor Tussing has shown by suggesting that he wants to hear from the jurors about why they did what they did.

Is he clueless? Doesn't he realize how this could be perceived as intimidation or retaliation -- especially when the verdict against the city specifically dealt with issues of intimidation, coverups, and retaliation?

The city certainly needs to look carefully into what happened, but the immediate defendants, such as Tussing, should stay a mile away from that process.

3. It was a careful jury -- deliberating more than 11 hours. "There were no hasty decisions," (one juror) said. "There were no agendas. I never saw a group of people come together who respected each other's opinions and respected each other as a person more than I saw in that (jury) room."

4. The department was sloppy, to say the least, in keeping records of its internal affairs:

Other evidence that tipped the scale in Feuerstein's favor included what the juror described as "embarrassing" record-keeping practices within the department. During the trial, a police sergeant acknowledged that records were kept only sporadically when training drugs in the K-9 unit were checked in and out. The male juror described the practice as "sloppy" and "embarrassing.""Frankly, we have a better paper trail of keeping track of paper towels..."

5. And as Montana Headlines suspected after reviewing transcripts and news reports, it was the testimony of the defense witnesses themselves -- particularly Mayor Tussing -- that sunk the ship. Here's the excerpt from the Gazette piece by Greg Tuttle and Lance Benzel that says it all (our emphases):

Both jurors who spoke to The Gazette said defense witnesses for the city lacked credibility."

I made the comment that I thought the defense attorney had the most difficult job in the world," the male juror said. "He could only work with what he had, and what he had was a continuous group of smug and arrogant people who, not in their entirety, but for the most part, came off as if they're untouchable."

St. John, Capt. Dave Hinkel and Tussing failed to explain deficiencies in leadership that emerged during the trial, Bauck said. Listening to their testimony, she said, it was as though the three could admit "no room for error."

Testimony by Police Department supervisors "really swung us in the direction we went," she said.

The male juror also remarked that Tussing's testimony "helped Feuerstein's case. It did not help the defense."

Not surprisingly, the Gazette editorial today gives nice platitudes about the need for St. John to turn the department around -- but it fails to talk about the elephant in the room: how can the city of Billings work quickly to restore faith in our police department when we have Ron Tussing as our mayor?

It was his mismanagement that led to this huge verdict against the city. To a large degree, what sunk the city's case was the lack of credibility of his testimony, and the picture he himself painted (can anyone doubt that Tussing was "Exhibit A" of whom the juror was speaking when he talked of "smug and arrogant" witnesses?)

And yet, Tussing sounds like he plans to be right in the middle of the process of working on the city's image. There is something very wrong with this picture, and it is disappointing that on this subject we are getting silence from the Gazette -- so far.

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