Las Vegas Sun

July 31, 2014

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Justice doesn’t always seem just, even to jury

EDITOR’S NOTE: Ric Anderson, managing editor of the Greenspun Media Group newsroom, was selected as the jury foreman in the recent trial of Steven Gazlay.

The legal term is deliberation, but what happened in the jury room during the final stages of Steven Gazlay’s criminal trial was in reality an argument.

After nine days in Clark County District Court, the jury was stuck at 11-1 on three of the 12 charges filed against Gazlay, who was accused of breaking into his girlfriend’s home, holding her against her will and assaulting her while armed with a .22 Magnum handgun in July 2013.

It had been a long and strange case, and nobody on the jury wanted it to go into a 10th day. Gazlay claimed his girlfriend shot him and then threw a rock through her kitchen window to make it appear he’d broken in. Prosecutors and two witnesses said Gazlay broke into the home and accidentally shot himself while roughing up his girlfriend.

During the trial, Gazlay acted as his own attorney despite having no experience as a lawyer. His self-representation seemed to work against him at times, such as when he questioned his 11-year-old son after the boy testified on the state’s behalf. The child and his two siblings, whom Gazlay fathered with his girlfriend, were in the home when the incident occurred.

In a move that a seasoned defense attorney almost certainly wouldn’t have recommended, Gazlay asked the boy if he was afraid of him.

“Yes,” the boy said, his deep brown eyes peeking out from just beneath his curly brown hair. “Because you use your belt on me and slap me.”

Jurors hadn’t taken long in deciding that Gazlay was guilty of six of the charges — second-degree kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon, burglary, home invasion, coercion and domestic battery in the form of strangulation. There was corroborated testimony that he’d been the perpetrator, and his DNA was found on the trigger and hammer of the firearm.

Similarly, jurors quickly concluded Gazlay was not guilty of three charges related to other incidents and supported by little evidence.

But they couldn’t agree on the remaining charges — three counts of child abuse, neglect or endangerment. At issue was testimony that Gazlay had fired the gun accidentally, which raised questions about whether he’d intended to put the kids in danger.

That issue was important. Under the language in the charges themselves, the state needed to show only that Gazlay willfully and unlawfully endangered the kids. But there was a jury instruction saying intent needed to be considered.

The jury, seven men and five women from a variety of occupations, debated the matter until long after the Regional Justice Center had cleared out.

The medical transcriptionist bore down on the lone dissenter, a former military police officer at least 8 inches taller than her. She demanded that he stop referring to the charges as “child abuse” when in reality they were defined as child abuse, neglect or endangerment. The hairstylist, a 20-something man with a quick smile and tattoos on his fingers and hands, popped out of his chair to make a point. The “corporal,” so nicknamed because the marshal put her in charge of duties like validating the jurors’ parking slips, announced she couldn’t see how the jury could acquit Gazlay when the kids were endangered as a result of his actions.

Finally, the jury opted to seek clarification from the judge, Lee Gates, on the matter of intent. After what seemed like a long wait, Gates answered that specific intent was a factor. It may not have made common sense — acquitting a man of endangering children while simultaneously convicting him of breaking into their home with a gun and assaulting their mom — but jurors told each other that their only choice under the instructions was to find him not guilty of the endangerment counts because there was insufficient evidence that he intended to put the kids in harm’s way.

After delivering its verdict, the jury learned of another charge — possession of a firearm by an ex-felon, which couldn’t be presented until a verdict was reached on the gun charges. Jurors immediately convicted Gazlay on that count, and the trial ended.

During the case, jurors were ordered not to do any research Gazlay. But once released from duty, many Googled his name and got their first look at his past.

They discovered he’d been convicted in 2003 of beating a teenager in the face with a crowbar. It was a high-profile case in which it was revealed that Gazlay was a member of the 311 Boyz, a gang of teenagers from middle-class and affluent families. The media seized on the angle that inner-city violence had spilled into the suburbs.

With his latest convictions, Gazlay faces dozens of years in prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced May 28.

Although Gates complimented the jury on its verdict, jurors clearly struggled with their collective decision on the child endangerment charges. Several discussed the subject the day after the trial, when they came to the RJC to collect their pay of $40 per day for service.

They walked away knowing the verdict set the stage for a man with a history of violence to be incarcerated. But some may have come away with doubts as to whether, despite their best efforts to follow the letter of the law, the justice system truly worked in the case of those three kids.

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