State v. O’Connor
When the officers came knocking on Mr. O’Connor’s door, he had 131 marijuana plants in various stages of production, 6.5 pounds of drying harvested marijuana, and a triple beam scale inside his home. The officers had a search warrant based on an informant’s tip. O’Connor later threatened that informant and told him he owed O’Connor $50,000 for “lost weed” and attorney’s fees.
So the State charged O’Connor with manufacturing, possession with intent to deliver, and two counts of harassment related to the threats to the informant. Before the trial started, O’Connor brought a motion to “open the court.” O’Connor argued that the routine entry-searches at the courthouse doors restricted his right to a public trial. The trial judge informed O’Connor that the courtrooms were open to the public, but the searches were for the safety reasons. O’Connor asked that either the trial be moved to Gonzaga University or courthouse searches stop. That was denied. What a surprise!
On the fourth day of trial, the Spokane County Prosecutor’s office Victims and Witnesses Unit arranged a display in the courthouse in remembrance of murder victims. The display involved multiple pairs of shoes symbolizing victims of violent crimes. O’Connor requested a mistrial because the display prejudiced the jurors on his case. Murder victims=pot grower? Not seeing that one. The judge questioned the jurors and actually dismissed one who said she was affected by the children’s shoes, but denied the motion for a mistrial.
The jury found O’Connor guilty of the two drug charges, but not on the harassment charges. O’Connor appealed the display mistrial motion, the sufficiency of the evidence, the public trial motion, and “pro-se additional grounds.”
“A trial court should grant a mistrial when a trial irregularity is so prejudicial that it deprives the defendant of a fair trial. A trial irregularity is not prejudicial unless with reasonable probability the trial’s outcome would have differed if the error had not occurred. Similarly, to establish prosecutorial misconduct, the defendant bears the burden to establish the conduct complained of was both improper and prejudicial.” (Citations omitted)
Since the State of Washington has never dealt with the potential prejudice of courthouse displays, it turned to outside authority. In Missouri, the court of appeals held that even a domestic violence display in the courthouse did not prejudice a murder case defendant, stating, “even if we assume, arguendo, that members of the panel actually saw the display, we cannot say that this alone created an inherently prejudicial environment sufficient to deprive the appellant of a fair trial and require a new trial." Division III agreed and pointed out that O’Connor was not convicted of violent offenses. In fact he was acquitted of the harassment charges. In addition, the trial judge questioned the jury to determine if they had been prejudiced. Affirmed. However, I do agree with the court in Missouri that courthouse lobbies are probably not appropriate venues for these types of displays. Don’t give these defendants a way out.
O’Connor also argued that there was insufficient evidence to convict him with intent to deliver. Are you kidding me? 131 plants, 6.5 pounds, and a scale? All for personal use I bet. Affirmed!
It’s all for personal use, I swear!
And finally O’Connor argued that he was denied an open trial because of the courthouse entry searches. Here the State never requested a closed courtroom. The courtroom was open to the public subject to search. Apparently O’Connor wanted a gun totting audience to watch his trial. I wonder if he thought more people should be in attendance at his big day in court and concluded the only reason the courtroom was empty was because of the searches. The courthouse is full of criminal trials in front of empty courtrooms. No spotlight for a pot grower. The Court of Appeals thought O’Connor’s argument was “sketchy, confusing, and unpersuasive.” Did I mention that O’Connor brought this appeal on his own without an attorney (pro-se)? Once again, affirmed.