A federal judge is debating whether to overturn a jury verdict against two Cache County law enforcement officers accused of coercing witnesses to testify against a man charged with raping his daughter.
The jury last month awarded $302,000 to Paul Sheffield, father of the girl, who says he raped her when she was 12. The Utah Supreme Court later overturned Sheffield's conviction because evidence of his previous crimes was admitted at his 1987 trial.The attorney for the two officers Monday told U.S. District Judge Dee Benson that it would be "an absolute abuse of discretion" not to grant a mistrial and start over. The jury's verdict shocked and amazed him, attorney Scott Daniels told the judge.
"It didn't shock me in the least," countered Stephen Russell, attorney for Sheffield. "There was an immense amount of evidence supporting the verdict," he told Benson.
The judge asked Russell to summarize that evidence.
Some of the most moving evidence against Sheffield came from his own family. The youngest daughter, now 20, testified again at trial last month that her father raped her. Two stepdaughters also testified at trial last month that Sheffield had sexually abused them.
But Sheffield's older daughter says the two officers coerced her to lie to support her younger sister's story. A friend of the younger sister testified that he was coerced to lie, as well.
Daniels urged Benson to declare a mistrial because one of the witnesses mentioned that insurance money would pay for any verdict. Daniels cited a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says any mention of insurance during the trial was inappropriate because it could prompt a jury to grant an award, knowing it wasn't coming out of the defendant's pockets.
A juror's letter appeared to support Daniel's claim. Benson received the letter the day after trial. The juror said that after eight hours of deliberation, "I was so mentally drained I decided to follow the majority of my fellow jurors, assuming the insurance company would pay the bulk of the damages."
Benson read the letter in court, then said it would carry no weight in his decision because it was received after trial and he doesn't know if it's authentic.
"It clearly verified what I think, but the judge is right, you can't take an anonymous letter into account," Daniels said after the hearing.
Russell argued that the mention of insurance was a brief observation from an unimportant witness. This is the '90s, he told the judge. Most juries today are sophisticated enough to know that insurance companies usually pay the awards in civil trials.
Daniels first asked for a mistrial minutes after the witness mentioned insurance at trial. Benson declined the request at the end of trial.
If Benson again declined to grant a new trial, Daniels urged the judge to give the defendants a directed verdict in favor of one of the defendants one of the issues.
"Every once in awhile, you get a verdict where you just can't figure out how they possibly came to that conclusion. The verdict is out of bounds. It's the judge's duty in that case to give the losing party another chance."
"What if, on the next shot, the verdict is the same?" Benson asked.
"You can't go on and do it forever," Daniels conceded.
The jury decided in favor of Sheffield because of his own powerful testimony, Russell told Benson.
Details of Sheffield's earlier crimes were fully revealed at trial, along with information about the drugs, weapons and child pornography found at his home when he was arrested. That, coupled with the testimony from the three daughters, made it likely that the jury would view Sheffield as "some kind of monster," Russell said after the hearing.
So Russell told Sheffield that victory depended on his ability to convincingly tell his own story. "I told him his only chance was that the jury believed him," Russell said afterward.