Days of contentious deliberations in the sex-trafficking trial of a St. Paul man ended Thursday with a deadlocked jury that clashed in open court even as it was close to being dismissed.
In a note to Ramsey County District Judge Rosanne Nathanson, the jury said it was at an impasse and “there’d be no more movement.” Deliberations in the trial of Otis D. Washington were rocky from the start, with the first signs of discord coming Monday, when jurors said they were deadlocked after just five hours.
On Thursday morning, the forewoman handed Nathanson a verdict form stating that the jury had reached a not-guilty verdict on one of five felony counts against Washington, but two jurors shot up in their chairs in opposition.
“That is not true,” said one.
Nathanson sent them back to clarify things, and they returned deadlocked on all five counts.
“You have our great thanks,” she said. “This is the foundation of our justice system.”
Veteran attorneys said afterward that the risk of differences is accepted by all sides when seating jurors who are expected to bring their life experiences to the table.
Prosecutors plan to retry the case. Washington, 29, who was representing himself, said he wants to hire a private attorney for the next trial.
Jurors began deliberations July 11, skipped last Friday and resumed Monday. They sent Nathanson one note Monday saying they’d reached an impasse after five hours of deliberations and sent a second note an hour later saying that jurors were verbally “attacking” one another. The judge sent them back both times.
Andrew Small, a city attorney for Brooklyn Park and St. Louis Park and criminal defense attorney, said such notes early on are red flags of unusual stress.
“I’ve never seen it,” he said. “That was pretty unusual.”
Small, Ramsey County Attorney spokesman Dennis Gerhardstein and others said it’s impossible to predict how functional a jury will be.
“Ultimately, it’s up to those individuals to make those [verdict] decisions primarily on the facts of the case, but it’s inevitable that biases will come into play in the decision,” Gerhardstein said. “We’re really not going to speculate on what happened in the jury room.”
Attorneys screen jurors during selection. Jurors are encouraged to bring their common sense, judgment and life experiences to the table.
“I’m always a little nervous at the end of the day: Did I pick the right people for the jury?” Small said. “It is a very inexact science.”
It’s unclear what happened in the Washington case.
Despite the possible pitfalls, the jury system is still among the best for trying defendants, said Washington County Attorney Pete Orput.
“The jury system is as good as any system,” he said. “You have to be philosophical and say, ‘That’s very frustrating that one person can bollix the whole thing.’ How can you do it better? It’s an inherent risk” with juries.
A pretrial hearing for the next trial was set for Sept. 6.
Washington’s trial is part of a sprawling case involving his brother, the brother’s ex-girlfriend and the brothers’ two uncles. The family is accused of trafficking several vulnerable young women and girls.
The two uncles pleaded guilty to driving women to meet men who paid for sex. The other cases remain open.