The whole trial blueprint seems laid out on day one. Little in the way of revealing testimony occurred after the lunch break, but after a single trial day, sketches of both the defense and prosecution strategies were revealed in the case against DJ Bell.
Several children, perhaps seven or nine, were sleeping in a South Salt Lake home July 3 and 4, 2008, while their parents and other adults drank in the driveway from about midnight to 6 a.m. Next-door-neighbor Bell, 31, joined them at about 1:30 a.m. He left around 6 a.m., prosecution witnesses said, and it was soon discovered that two of the sleeping children, ages 2 and 4, were missing. They were found moments later by the mother of one of the children in Bell's bedroom.
The prosecution's argument is simple. If Bell inentionally transported the children without authorization from his neighbor's home to his own home, he's guilty of first-degree felony child kidnapping. If he entered the neighbors' home without authorization in order to escort them away, he's guilty of second-degree felony burglary. That’s what he’s charged with. That’s what they claim happened.
Neither of the witnesses who testified today, however, claim to have seen Bell do these things. Prosecutors' questions and opening argument suggest they will try to convince the jury that the children could not or would not have left the home on their own and would not have gone to Bell’s house even if they did, since they didn’t really know him.
The defense made clear that they claim the children wandered over. Their strategy doesn't stop there. The defense is arguing that Tapululu “Lulu” Latu, the mother of the 2 year old, "manufactured a kidnapping to avoid her family being arrested that night," as defense attorney Susanne Graft said during her opening statement, and that “Lulu needs someone to blame” for her children wandering off.
Latu, in August 2008, during Bell's preliminary hearing, testified she was sure "the incident," when she went over to Bell's house and found the children there, happened around 6 a.m. But records show she didn't call 911 until 6:52 a.m. Prior to the 911 call, Bell and Fair were assaulted, which lead to head injuries on Bell and a 3-day hospital stay for Fair.
The implication the defense is trying to make is that Latu called 911 not immediately after she discovered the children in Bell’s home, but 52 minutes later, after Bell and his partner Dan Fair were assaulted by people at the party.
Latu testified she called 911 for 2 reasons: because her children were kidnapped and Bell and Fair were injured. Defense attorney Roger Craft asked Latu dozens of questions about the 911 call, almost all of which were objected to by prosecutors and sustained by 3rd District Judge Paul Maughan. Craft was speculating, arguing with the witness, or repeating questions, the judge ruled on various objections. "You were afraid someone else would call 911?" is one example. "You weren't afraid someone was going to report another version of the story than yours?" Craft tried again, but again the objection was sustained.
Despite Craft’s unanswered questions of Latu, the jury may have understood what he was getting at. That doesn't mean they believe it or think it’s important.
If jurors fixate on the 52 minutes, they may question Latu's motives. The defense would love it if the jury believes Latu called 911 to report a kidnapping not because she was worried about the children, but to distract police from investigating the assaults of Bell and Fair.
Unfortunately I can't attend each day of the trial, scheduled through Friday. I plan to go back for closing arguments. If anyone attending the trial can alert me when Bell and Fair will testify, I would try to show up for that as well to be fair: I sat through two state witnesses today.
Incarceration is mandatory for a conviction of child kidnapping and the presumptive sentence is 15 years to life. That means DJ could potentially face a minimum of 30 years in prison, although the judge would have latitude to sentence him to 6 years to life for each child kidnapping convictions.
I'll live-tweet the trial via Twitter any time I'm in attendance. Follow me @fruhwirth.
(Court room pool photos by Jeffrey Allred)
Mother testifies in kidnapping trial of gay man, Sept. 22, 2009
Brandon's Big Gay Blog: DJ Bell is on Trial, Sept. 22, 2009
Kidnapping trial begins against gay victim of attack, Sept. 21 2009
DJ Bell Trial set for September, Aug. 3, 2009
Crime and Prejudice, July 30 2008
Injustice801, a site setup by Bell and Fair supporters