A mistrial has been declared in the homicide trial of Christopher Strawn, the man accused of shooting Brandon Cook in the back of the head in October 2015.
It was a dramatic and abrupt end to a trial already marked by high emotion. On previous days, Cook’s family wept as grisly photos of his body were displayed, and close friend Tiffany Albertson broke down as she relived the moments leading up to his murder in her trailer.
Strawn’s ex-girlfriend was visibly nervous and emotional as she stepped up to the stand Tuesday afternoon. She only made it as far as telling the jury she had been in a relationship with Strawn from 2007 to 2013 before she made a reference to domestic violence — an allegation that had been barred from testimony during the trial.
Strawn’s defense attorney, Eve Soutiere, shot to her feet with a strenuous objection.
“The cat is out of the bag,” Soutiere said. “A mistrial is the only remedy at this point.”
Assistant District Attorney Amy Paige disagreed, telling Judge Philip Pallenberg the statement was so brief it could be corrected with an instruction to the jury.
“Coupled with her demeanor, this is not remediable,” Soutiere contended.
The woman’s name is being withheld because she is an alleged domestic violence victim.
Her statement came in the middle of the second week of Strawn’s trial in Juneau Superior Court.
Strawn, 33, was facing charges of first-degree and second-degree murder, manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, third-degree assault and weapons misconduct.
Soutiere reminded Pallenberg that the witness’ testimony was discussed before the trial and the state was cautioned against using her as a witness if they could not control her.
“You can’t unring this particular bell,” she said, adding that the witness was supposed to be testifying about the ownership of a gun and had been instructed to limit her testimony. “No curative instruction is going to fix this mess.”
Pallenberg took a recess to listen to a recording of that pre-trial discussion, noting that the defense had argued that the witness should not be allowed to testify because she might “blurt out” something about domestic violence. He added that he had relied on the state to gauge whether or not she was going to abide by the restrictions on her testimony.
“I’m not going to dump on the witness,” he said. “She was obviously extremely emotional when she took the stand.”
Pallenberg also noted that during the pre-trial discussion, he cautioned the state that they could proceed with the witness at its own risk.
“She came into the courtroom with an AWARE advocate, she took the stand and said was was nervous,” he said, explaining the sequence of events that led to his decision. “She appeared to be terrified and volunteered there was domestic violence.”
“I am granting the motion for a mistrial,” he continued. “We should not have been in this place.”
Paige told Pallenberg she was not trying to be argumentative, but she did not believe his action was appropriate.
The prosecutor stressed that she met with the witness multiple times, instructing her to limit her testimony.
“The court is using its prior admonition as the reason to grant a mistrial,” Paige said. “We did everything in our power to ensure this wouldn’t happen.”
Pallenberg replied that he did not grant the mistrial as a punishment, saying “it’s not a matter of fault.”
The judge referred to the woman’s demeanor as “terrified,” saying that he suspected the jury would not be able to block that from their minds even if he instructed them to disregard what she said.
“The last thing I want to do is re-try this case,” he said, before adding that remains a better option than ending up in appeals court.
A new trial date was tentatively set for April 3; the prosecution is expected to ask for a change of venue.
• Reporter Liz Kellar can be reached at 523-2246 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.