Courtroom lights dimmed Thursday as jurors watched video camera surveillance footage of three young people hopping a fence at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park and then leaving 18 minutes before the fire department responded to a fire there.
The motion-activated cameras began recording in night mode as 19-year-old defendant Ashley Rae Johnston rode her bike in a parking lot alongside three males, one of whom is seen pointing at the camera affixed to the Snack Shack concession stand. Another male, with a bottle of alcohol in hand, is then seen messing with the camera and turning it around.
The camera was inadvertently turned to face the entrance of the turf football field, which otherwise would not have captured them jumping the fence, Detective Krag Campbell testified Thursday. (The third male had left before Johnston, Ryan M. Martin, 24, and Dillon West, 24, jumped onto the field, Campbell said.)
Assistant District Attorney Amy Williams says the accidental footage places the trio at the scene of the crime. Both Johnston and Martin are charged with one count of arson and criminal mischief, felonies that are punishable by up to five years in jail. Johnston’s trial began Wednesday in Juneau Superior Court before Judge Philip Pallenberg. Martin is slated to stand trial in April, and West is only facing misdemeanor charges out of district court.
Another video camera attached to the press box at the top of the bleachers shows them walking around the field, and shoe prints left behind indicate they were inside the fenced area, which was closed to the public as the turf field was being replaced, Campbell said.
But the footage does not show anyone setting the fire, which caused nearly $25,000 in damages to materials being used to replace the turf field, Williams said. That means the state’s case against Johnston largely hinges on a police interview with her.
Williams says Johnston eventually confessed to police after changing her story numerous times, while the defense says police coerced her to confess to something she did not do by using questionable interrogation tactics. Johnston’s attorney, Public Defender Timothy Ayer, said earlier in opening statements that police lied when they informed Johnston that she was caught on video tape lighting the fire when she really wasn’t.
Jurors heard that for themselves when they listened to the hour-long audio recording of the interview before they were excused for the day Thursday afternoon.
When asked for an explanation under direct examination, Campbell described it as a “ruse” intended to gauge her reaction. He said it’s a technique he has used before.
“She wasn’t giving really a response to anything, basically it was all just ‘I wasn’t there, I don’t know anything about it.’ So I kind of switched to a more of a kind of throwing this out there, to an investigative technique, it’s called a ruse to see what is her response going to be to that,” Campbell said.
Johnston is heard telling the officers she doesn’t remember much of the night since she was drinking and was blacked out. When the officers tell her they have her on video camera setting the fire, she pauses then says that doesn’t sound like her, but if they have it on camera, then it must be true. The officers then grill her with questions in an attempt to get her to admit she committed a crime, such as whether she used a lighter or matches to light a fire, what the color of the lighter was, whether she was a smoker and carries a lighter on her, whether Martin and West asked or dare her to do it and whether they lit fires too. They also asked her to show them how she lit the fire, and how she sleeps at night.
Testimony will pick up Friday with Campbell still on the witness stand so Williams can continue direct examination and Ayer can cross-examine him.
Outside the presence of the jury, Ayer asked the judge to allow him to question Campbell on possible bias on the part of JPD. Ayer says police pursued Johnston more aggressively than her codefendant Martin since Martin is the son of JPD Detective Kim Horn. Horn is in the same criminal investigations unit as Campbell. Pallenberg previously rejected the request, but granted the renewed request on Thursday.
Ayer said in earlier oral arguments that police read Martin his Miranda rights before they interviewed him at the police station, but they did not for Johnston when she was interviewed at a downtown store where she agreed to meet them. Ayer further said police applied for and were granted a search warrant to seize Martin’s shoes at his home, but police did not obtain a warrant to seize Johnston’s messenger bag. Officers just told her she legally had to forfeit it since it was in plain view during their interview.
Williams had argued Martin was read his Miranda rights because he was interviewed at the police station. She also said that search warrants are normally executed when seizing items from someone’s home. She further argued Martin and Johnston were charged with the same crimes, demonstrating a lack of bias.
Johnston’s trial is expected to go to the jury at the end of the day Friday.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.