Judge declares mistrial in shooting trial

CNJ staff photo: Tony Bullocks District Judge Stephen Quinn declared a mistrial Tuesday in the first-degree murder trial of Lonzell Wiggins after potential jurors saw Wiggins in handcuffs and shackles.

Sharna Johnson

A mistrial was declared Tuesday before a jury could be selected in the first-degree murder case of Lonzell Wiggins after potential jurors saw him being walked from the jail to the courthouse in handcuffs and shackles.

District Judge Stephen Quinn issued the order after hearing testimony from four potential jurors, who reported seeing Wiggins being escorted to his trial by sheriff’s deputies and transport officers.

Quinn defined it as an issue of visibility and timing that allowed potential jurors to see the defendant restrained, potentially tainting their perspective of him — which should be as that of an innocent man.

“He’s presumed innocent, he’s presumed not to have committed this crime,” defense attorney Jesse Cosby told the court.

Wiggins is accused of shooting Gary Gill, 48, on Dec. 14, 2009, inside a residence at 1408 West 10th St. A member of the victim’s family told police the two had an ongoing dispute.

Court Administrator Louis Moore said case law protects a defendant from being seen in handcuffs, shackles or jail uniforms because it gives the impression that someone has done something wrong, and potentially taints a juror’s ability to see a person accused of a crime as innocent.

The jail is at Eighth and Mitchell streets, north of the courthouse.

Moore said it is customary for defendants to be escorted across Eighth Street for court appearances.

One female juror testified she was in the courthouse elevator and when the door opened, Wiggins was standing outside with deputies. She said she got scared when she was ordered back on the elevator by deputies who stepped in front of Wiggins to block him from view, records show.

Two male and one female juror testified when they were parking and entering the courthouse, they saw Wiggins being walked between two deputies into the courthouse.

“This has never to my knowledge been an issue in the past; this was something new today,” said Undersheriff Wesley Waller, whose department handles transport of inmates to court.

Waller declined to discuss his department’s procedure, citing safety reasons, but said they will be addressing the issue raised in Wiggin’s case.

“It’s the responsibility of the transport officers to move inmates from the detention facility to the various courts and maintain security and prevent escape but at the same time we have a responsibility to adhere to the courts rules and prevent potential jurors from seeing (inmates) in any type of restraints,” he said.

“That’s a balance that we strive for and try to maintain, but in that process today the defense council made issue and we are currently in the process of addressing that.”

Sheriffs department transport officer Ron Shaffer testified it is procedure to walk defendants across the street.

Addressing the issue of the timing that led to the defendant being in the courts’ parking area as jurors arrived, Waldo Casarez, a sheriff’s investigator, told the court the sheriff’s office notifies the jail of the time inmates will be transported to court but officers are at the “mercy” of the jail regarding whether or not the inmate is ready when they arrive.

He also testified there are no holding cells at the courthouse and defendants are taken to the sheriff’s office.

Though none of the jurors recalled noticing his hands or feet, Stover acknowledged to the court that because Wiggins was being escorted to court at the same time jurors were arriving, there was no way to know how many of them saw him or if they noticed he was restrained.

As he dismissed jurors, Quinn thanked them for their service.

“Through no fault of the district attorney or defendant I had to declare a mistrial (this morning),” he told a full gallery of jurors.

The jury had not yet been selected Tuesday morning when the incident halted proceedings. Tuesday was the second day of proceedings in the case, with Monday spent interviewing jurors. The court had expected to finalize selection and begin opening arguments by afternoon.

Quinn’s decision was not contested by prosecutors.

“The jury panel is not to see (defendants) in shackles,” prosecutor Brian Stover told the judge after the jurors had been dismissed.

“This was inadvertent but at this point there’s no other cure than (to declare) a mistrial.”

Cosby asked for a reduction of bond when the trial was rescheduled for five days, beginning July 25. He said Wiggins cooperated with law enforcement during the investigation and is not a flight risk because he has a wife and children in Clovis.

After hearing testimony the family of Gill family members, Quinn denied the request, keeping the bond at $200,000. He noted Wiggins had a prior conviction involving the non-fatal shooting of another Clovis man.