St. Paul beating victim Ray Widstrand can attend the trial of his accused attacker after all, a judge ruled Monday.
Ramsey County District Judge Joanne Smith said Widstrand’s “mere presence” won’t violate suspect Cindarion D. Butler’s constitutional right to a fair trial and denied his attorney’s motion to prohibit Widstrand from sitting in and listening to testimony.
“The bottom line is … [for] not only Mr. Widstrand, but certainly crime victims in Minnesota, to blanketly exclude them from court proceedings is just inappropriate from the court’s perspective,” Smith said in her ruling.
Widstrand’s presence in the courtroom became an issue Friday after he entered during a break while jurors were absent. He left after Butler’s attorney, Christopher Zipko, raised concerns that his presence could jeopardize Butler’s right to a fair trial.
Widstrand, who was nearly beaten to death in an Aug. 4 melee on St. Paul’s East Side, did not attend Monday’s court proceedings because of previous appointments. His mother, Linda Widstrand, said he hopes to attend closing arguments tentatively set for Tuesday afternoon. Attendance at closing arguments was not an issue since testimony would be completed by then.
“I feel great,” Linda Widstrand said of Smith’s decision.
Butler, 17, is charged with first-degree assault, first-degree aggravated robbery and two counts of committing crimes for the benefit of a gang in the attack on Widstrand, 27.
About 50 teens were at a party on Preble Street near E. Minnehaha Avenue that August night and spilled out onto the streets to watch three fights between girls. Widstrand walked into the melee and was punched, kicked and jumped on when he stopped to help a girl off the ground about 11:30 p.m.
Widstrand, who lived nearby, is undergoing therapy for physical and mental disabilities. A large scar is still visible on his head where a piece of his skull was removed and later reattached. He also walks with a noticeable limp.
Smith’s ruling Monday can’t stop the defense from subpoenaing Widstrand, which would effectively ban him from attending testimony because witnesses are sequestered. Zipko said Monday he was prepared to serve Widstrand with a subpoena if he came near the courtroom during testimony, which is expected to wrap up Tuesday morning.
“Just to be clear, your honor, he is a potential witness,” Zipko said. “My client has a constitutional right to a meaningful trial.”
Smith told Zipko that she and Assistant Ramsey County Attorney David Miller were surprised Friday when Zipko first made known his intentions to subpoena Widstrand. Zipko countered that Miller had first listed Widstrand as a potential witness long before trial began, and that when the defense issued its witness list, it included the prosecution’s witnesses.
Smith said there was no clear guidance on the issue, and expressed hope that state legislators would revisit victim rights law to provide clarity. The state has a responsibility to protect a defendant’s right to a fair trial, but not at all costs, Smith said.
In testimony Monday, witness De’Onta Davis said that Butler walked away when his friends joined the attack and that he did not participate.
In testimony last week, one witness said that Butler removed Widstrand’s shorts. Forensic scientists also testified that Widstrand’s DNA and blood were found on Butler’s shoes and shorts. Zipko, meanwhile, has said that Butler never touched Widstrand.
One juvenile has pleaded guilty in the attack. Another juvenile charged awaits a court hearing, while the case against a third juvenile was dismissed. Issac O. Maiden was acquitted in a November trial.