St. Clair County Circuit Judge Robert Haida declared a mistrial in closed court after a witness testified defendant David Fields asked to borrow a gun from murder victim Carl Z. Silas, according to a court transcript.
Before he did, Haida heard arguments about whether that testimony violated his previous order barring testimony about Fields having a gun the day before the murder.
Haida may decide whether a witnesses’ testimony was intentionally elicited by the prosecutor.
If he finds it was, Fields could go free.
Haida could find that double-jeopardy attached during that questioning and bar prosecutors from retrying Fields.
“That’s my understanding of the law,” said Fields’ attorney, Brittany Kimble.
Special Prosecutor Charles Colburn declined to comment on that, but said in an email that he did intend to retry Fields.
On July 26, the court transcript obtained by the Belleville News-Democrat shows that 16-year-old Michael Taylor Jr., who was at the apartment at the time Silas was shot, testified about overhearing Fields asking Silas to borrow a gun the day before Silas was found shot to death in his bed at a Belleville apartment.
The defense objected, and Haida found that testimony was so prejudicial to Fields that telling jurors to disregard it wouldn’t be enough to overcome the damage.
“So (Fields) came to our house and he was looking — he was asking Carl to help him get a gun,” Taylor told the jury during his testimony on the third day of the trial.
Kimble immediately moved for a mistrial.
Fields, 21, was on trial for first-degree murder in connection with the Dec. 29, 2016, shooting death of Silas, 28.
Fields was the former roommate of St. Clair County Circuit Judge Ron Duebbert, who last month had charges of sex abuse and intimidation against him dismissed.
During a closed-door hearing that interrupted Taylor’s testimony, Kimble argued that “any mention of Mr. Fields having a gun the day before the charged offense would fall into character evidence, specifically other bad acts, and is not admissible. We went through this whole thing. It was by agreement.”
Taylor was the third witness to state that Fields asked Silas to borrow a gun. The other two witnesses, Jamie Lott and Kiara Mosely, told police that Fields did borrow a shotgun from Silas.
In a June hearing, defense lawyers Kimble and Ryan Neal successfully argued there was no proof that Silas was murdered with a shotgun, and testimony from Lott and Mosely would prejudice the jury. Haida agreed and barred any such testimony.
At the trial, one of the prosecution’s witnesses testified that Silas was shot with a semi-automatic rifle, not a shotgun.
Colburn argued against a mistrial during the July 26 closed session, according to the transcript.
“Mr. Taylor did not testify the defendant was in possession of a firearm. He testified that the defendant was asking about getting a firearm. So it was not prohibited territory. And we did not anticipate him even raising that at all,” Colburn said during the hearing.
“To say that Mr. Fields asked for a gun but then to leave out that Carl Silas sent him to go get a gun, which was possessed by Carl Silas, and then he went and got the gun, according to these witnesses, is what we were trying to avoid,” Kimble countered.
As an alternative to a mistrial, Colburn asked Haida to strike the testimony.
“I’ll cut out anything that happened the day before and we’ll just start up with what happened when he went to sleep on the 29th,” Colburn told Haida.
“You can’t unring the bell. The jury has heard it. And so to me, and for the record purposes, I believe that’s an insufficient remedy,” Kimble countered, according to the transcript from the closed-door hearing.
Haida agreed with Kimble.
According to the transcript of the trial from July 26, Haida dismissed the jurors and witness to decide whether to end the case in a mistrial. Kimble also asked the judge to remove any spectators. He complied with the defense’s request.
“I would ask everyone in the courtroom to depart. Thank you,” Haida told those attending the trial on that Thursday morning.
Haida could not be reached for comment for this story.
But Kimble said Thursday the reason the courtroom was closed was one of the juror’s grandmother was in the gallery watching the trial. When asked why the grandmother wasn’t removed, Kimble said then a juror would be singled out.
In Illinois, court proceedings are deemed to be open to the public, unless there is a compelling reason to necessitate such a closure, and the reason for the closure must be made on the record.
“A judge just can’t close a courtroom without making a finding of a compelling reason to do so,” said Don Craven, a First Amendment attorney who represents members of the Illinois Press Association. “There must be no other method to remedy except a closure.”
Besides the testimony related to the gun, Taylor had trouble identifying Fields, who is his cousin. When asked whether Taylor could point out Fields in the courtroom, Taylor replied that he didn’t see him.
“Do you see him at the table here?” Colburn asked.
Kimble objected to the question, telling the judge the question was leading.
Haida replied that a podium may have been blocking Taylor’s view of Fields and allowed the question.
According to the transcript, before Haida issued his final ruling of a mistrial in open court, Colburn asked Haida in the closed-door hearing to reconsider his mistrial ruling and said his questioning of Taylor did not intend to violate Haida’s previous ruling barring testimony about Fields possessing a gun.
“There’s going to be obviously substantial prejudicial evidence against this defendant that he shot someone, that he had a firearm. I do not see where this a violation of the (previous ruling). It certainly was not intentional. And I do believe that given all of the substantially more prejudicial evidence against the defendant that I do not see how this inadvertent statement warrants a mistrial,” Colburn stated.
Kimble was asked whether she will argue against the state retrying Fields.
“I guess we’ll see,” she said.