The Apple Tree:: Chapter 8: Trial and Error

The day of Bridget's trial arrived. It had been weeks since I'd seen her and an anxiousness had taken up residence in my midsection. Knowing her story in such a way had invested me in the outcome of her trial. Would the jury see Bridget the way I did?

Parenthood prevented me from attending the first day of trial, but I made sure I was there the second day: the day Bridget was scheduled to testify. During that first day, I had missed the testimony of the two Walmart employees along with the testimony of Rochester Police Officers.

Since I'd never been to court before I arrived early. The judge was hearing another case when I arrived, so I waited outside the courtroom on a row of benches in the common area between four different court rooms. There were also small meeting rooms between the court room doors. 

When Bridget's case was finally called, I cautiously entered the courtroom. The judge's seat was in the front left corner of the room; elevated a step or two off the floor. To the right of the judge's seat were chairs for what I presumed were court reporters and other court officials. To the left of the judge was the witness stand. The jury, who was not yet present, would be seated on the far right side of the room, perpendicular to the viewing gallery. Directly in front of the gallery, facing the judge were the defendant's and the prosecutor's tables. 

When I took my seat, I noticed Bridget's public defender and the state's attorneys were already seated and presumably preparing for the case, shuffling papers, opening and closing binders, talking quietly and walking from one place to another. There was one male and one female attorney for the State. The woman happened to be wearing the same gray dress suit that I used to own. What were the odds? The man had strikingly blonde hair.

When it seemed everyone had made adequate preparations, Bridget's attorney began chit chatting and laughing with the State's attorneys. They seemed exceedingly chummy. Too chummy, in fact. Wasn't it supposed to be a figurative blood bath between sides? But, then what do I know of such things?

Seated directly in front of me in the viewing gallery was a woman in her 50's and a younger pregnant woman. I presumed these to be Bridget's mom and daughter, so I tapped on the shoulder of the older woman and introduced myself. It was, in fact, Bridget's family and it felt good to finally meet the people I had heard so much about.

Then, Bridget, handcuffed, came in led by a deputy who promptly removed her handcuffs before she sat down next to her attorney. It was the first time I'd seen her in plain clothes. Her hair was a mass of curls and I could tell she'd been able to put effort into her appearance. A luxury not usually afforded those in jail.  

She and her attorney began speaking in hushed tones while Bridget stole glances at her mother and daughter. They smiled and waved.

Then, a deputy instructed us to rise. As we got to our feet the judge entered the courtroom. There was a sense of comfort in discovering Bridget's judge was a woman. 

From Judge Stevens' instructions to the jury

The judge, Judge Christina K. Stevens, addressed the court before inviting the jury to be brought in. When the jury entered the courtroom, I studied them intently. They were everyday people; some dressed like they were going to a funeral and some dressed like they were headed to Target. Some male, some female. Some older, some young. No matter who they were they were in charge of determining Bridget's fate. 

Then, it began. One final police officer was the day's first witness. Both the Prosecutor and the Defense asked basic questions regarding what happened that night at Walmart. Nothing earth-shattering.

After the police officer was dismissed. The Defense called Bridget to the stand. I knew Bridget would be a jumble of anxious nerves, but she exuded confidence. Perhaps too much.

At this point, it was apparent Bridget's attorney wasn't trying to prove Bridget hadn't committed theft; it was clear that she did. Rather, the Defense was trying to show that Bridget did not, in fact, threaten anyone with a knife. Throughout the questioning Bridget's responses pointed to one thing - she did not intend to harm the Walmart employee who had confronted her.

There is a tremendous difference between simple shoplifting and 1st degree aggravated robbery for which Bridget was charged. Shoplifting would be a fine, maybe community service, maybe probation, but she would be released without serving any additional time. 1st degree aggravated robbery is a serious felony and can include significant prison time - up to 20 years. In addition to the 1st degree aggravated robbery charge, Bridget had been charged with possession of shoplifting gear (a felony) and another misdemeanor theft charge.

To borrow a cliché, Bridget was between a rock and a hard place. She had been offered a plea deal after her arrest: if she pled guilty to the 1st degree aggravated robbery charge she would get off with time served and probation. No prison time. However, she would have a very serious felony on her record. Since Bridget was adamant she did not commit aggravated robbery, she refused the plea, took the case the trial, and was now facing serious prison time if they lost the case.

Minnesota statute defines 1st degree aggravated robbery as theft using "the threat of imminent force against any person to overcome resistance or compel acquiescence in the taking or carrying away of the property." A person is guilty of this crime if the defendant "is armed with a dangerous weapon or any article used or fashioned in a manner to lead the victim to reasonably believe it to be a dangerous weapon." (See footnote 1)

It all came down to certain questions:

  • Did Bridget have a knife in her hand when she was confronted by the Walmart employee? 
  • If she did have a knife, did Bridget intend to harm, or threaten, the Walmart employee with that knife?

If the answer to either or both of those questions, was "yes" then a conviction was possible and/or probable. 

The reality is Bridget did have a knife in her possession that evening. She used it to cut open the packaging from the stolen items just minutes before the confrontation with the Walmart employee. Her assertion to this day is the knife was not in her hand, but rather in her right pants pocket; which, incidentally, is where police discovered it on pat down at the time of her arrest.

On cross examination, the Prosecution argued that Bridget did have the knife in her hand. They showed, in court, the surveillance video from Walmart of the confrontation between Bridget and the Walmart employee. The video is grainy enough that one can't exactly determine what is or isn't in her hand. There could be something such as a cell phone, or potentially, a small knife, or nothing at all.

Important to note, the knife Bridget had that night was the sort of knife that has to be opened in order to be used? Not a switchblade, but one that is flipped open. And, it was small (see picture). That meant there was a third question added into the mix.

  • If Bridget had the knife in her hand, was it open or closed?

Some doubt can be cast on whether the knife was truly in Bridget's pant's pocket, however. Both Bridget and the Walmart employee mention a discussion during the confrontation about Bridget needing "the knife" to file the glue off her thumb nail after an acrylic nail had fallen off.

However, there are conflicting reports as to which hand the knife might have been in had Bridget had the knife in her hand. Interviews with the Walmart employee say it was in Bridget's right hand. Police officer's reports say it was the left. 

On the evening in question, Bridget legitimately bought small items before heading to the restroom to cut off the packaging from the stolen items that were in her pink Victoria's Secret bag. After leaving the restroom, the bag of purchased goods was in her left hand when she was confronted by the Walmart employee. In his interview with police, the Walmart employee stated Bridget raised the knife towards him and then he stepped back, raised his arms in surrender and stepped out of her way. 

Bridget states that she raised her left hand when she showed the Walmart employee her bag of purchased goods and that she had a receipt for the items. She was responding to his accusation of theft.

The entire confrontation lasted nine seconds. Here it is in real time.

And here it is frame-by-frame in slow motion.

Back in the courtroom, Bridget's attorney followed the Prosecution's questioning. It was a weak response, in my opinion, but, again, what do I know of court proceedings and questioning. It appeared, to me, that the confidence of Bridget's attorney got the best of him. The nerves in my gut were now replaced with a sinking feeling.

After Bridget finished testifying, I left the courtroom to return to work. The case concluded the next day and it was up to the jury to deliberate and arrive at a verdict.

Relayed to me by jail program staff, I remember exactly where I was when I learned her verdict days later:


On all counts.

How in the world had the jury reached that conclusion? I was dumbfounded and heart-sick for my friend. Her life had just been put on a different and very difficult trajectory.

We gathered, again, in the same courtroom, a few weeks later for sentencing. This time, I sat with Bridget's mom and daughter. We waited with baited breath. The judge was sentencing another detainee prior to Bridget, so we would have to wait through that. However, nothing could begin until Bridget's public defender arrived. We waited and waited. The judge was just about ready to postpone the entire morning's sentencing when he finally arrived. When the judge questioned him about his tardiness, he stated it had something to do with his assumption that the detainee awaiting sentencing had fired him.

Either way, things finally got underway.

I never realized how complicated sentencing can be. Many factors go into a judge's decision based on recommendations from various sources both within the county and supportive services outside the employment of the county. Regardless, I was just happy Bridget would receive closure and know what would happen to her.

But then, the judge did something none of us expected. She tabled Bridget's sentence in Olmsted county until she finished serving her sentences in Eau Clair County Wisconsin and Wabasha County Minnesota. 

At first glance this doesn't seem like a big deal, but it was an arrangement that created an opportunity for Bridget to succeed or fail miserably. In other words, the judge was testing Bridget.

Bridget would have a period of time, after finishing the Wabasha and Eau Claire sentences, where she would be free from custody prior to sentencing in Olmsted County. It would be a period of time where Bridget would, in essence, be homeless, without a job, with strong connections to unhealthy people, and no resources to keep her from using again.

If she remained sober and out of trouble during that time, the judge would offer a more favorable sentence. If she messed up, it would be prison time, for sure. And, there was no way of knowing how long it would be from the time she was released until the time of her sentencing. It could be weeks, it could be a month or more.

The judge never explicitly said this was a test, but it was inferred by all of us present. After it was over, I talked with Bridget's mom and daughter in the common area. We all shared our concern about the judge's orders. Where would Bridget go? With whom would she stay? Who would pick her up when she was released?

Bridget's mom wasn't prepared to have Bridget stay with her. Their relationship needed continued healing before trust could be mutually given and received. Bridget's daughter was due to have a baby and she didn't think she could trust her mom enough to invite her to live with her and her boyfriend. With broken relationships all around her and no time to fix them, Bridget had little to no options that would lead to her success. 

So, I volunteered to work with Bridget's mom and daughter in finding a solution. I wasn't sure what it might be, but we'd figure it out. Bridget's success depended on it.

Immediately after sentencing, Bridget was released from Olmsted County and transported to Wabasha County after spending a weekend in the women's prison in Shakopee, MN. 

After Wabasha County it was on to Eau Claire County, WI. Her trial had begun in late April and concluded on May 1, 2014. It was now September and she was soon to be released from Eau Claire County Jail to await final sentencing in Olmsted County. After going back and forth with Bridget's daughter and mother it was determined that I was the only one able to pick her up from Wisconsin and bring her back to Minnesota where it had been decided she would stay with her daughter. Bridget's grandson had been born while she was incarcerated in Eau Claire.

After receiving permission from detention center staff, I woke up bright and early on a Tuesday morning in September and headed to Wisconsin...

1) From the instructions given by Judge Stevens to the jury in this case.