By David Long
The parties interested in Dolores’s first jury trial in more than a decade – and there appeared to be quite a few at its aborted start April 22 – are going to have to wait a little longer for the rare proceeding.
With a jury nearly seated, a mistrial was abruptly declared by Judge James Shaner after one prospective juror challenged town prosecutor Mike Green’s assertion that the police report about the incident in question contained an account of an assault during a bar fight.
River guide Tom Wolfe is accused of punching landowner Bruce Lightenburger Jan. 17 at the Hollywood Bar following a heated verbal exchange. Wolfe has denied the charge and, in fact, asserts Lightenburger was the instigator of the incident.
Wolfe was charged with disorderly conduct on Jan. 22.
The two reportedly have an ongoing dispute over river access along a stretch of the Dolores River that runs through Lightenburger’s property. Wolfe, who owned a rafting company in Dolores with his wife, Janneli Miller, had complained about Lightenburger stringing barbed wire across the river, while Lightenburger had accused Wolfe of trespassing.
[Disclosure: Janneli Miller is a freelance contributor to the Free Press.] The bad blood between the two men apparently boiled over when they encountered one another at the Hollywood. What exactly happened during this encounter will be the subject of the trial, with both sides planning to call witnesses and introduce statements of the principals.
On April 22, however, most of the morning session in the packed courtroom in Dolores’s Town Hall was taken up trying to empanel jurors, a number of whom had to be dismissed because they were acquainted with one or another of the parties involved.
The judge had just finished his questioning of the jury pool and had given Green the chance to question the 12 prospects remaining.
Green prefaced his questioning by saying he wanted to first find out if any of the potential jurors might be influenced by the atmosphere in which the alleged conflict occurred. He observed that some people have an attitude that bar fights are pretty much par for the course, that “ . . . someone hits someone, then gets charged with assault.”
“Is anyone (on the jury) thinking, ‘That’s just what happens in bars?’ ” Green asked.
It was then that a juror candidate arose and stated that he’d just finished reading the investigating deputy’s report of the incident, and saw nowhere in it any allegation of an assault being made.
“I’ve got here a copy of the police report – there’s no mention of anyone hitting anyone,” he said.
At this point, the judge, prosecution and defense conferred privately, then returned to announce the mistrial.
The report by Montezuma County Sheriff’s Deputy James Utley – a public document – was reportedly given to the juror by a Cortez Journal reporter during the frequent pauses in the proceedings.
Utley’s initial report of Jan. 17 detailed his contacts with witnesses and other patrons of the tavern at the time of the incident, but concluded that at that time he found no cause to bring charges against anyone.
“Due to no witness of the altercation observing either Lightenburger or Wolfe strike the other, no charges will be filed in this case,” he wrote. However, he noted that he had not yet been able to contact a friend of Lightenburger’s who had playing pool with him in the bar at the time of the incident.
After talking to Lightenburger’s friend three days later, Utley then issued Wolfe a summons for disorderly conduct.
On April 22, after a hurried conference between Shaner, attorneys, and the juror, the judge stated making the report available was “incredibly prejudicial to every juror” and that he had no choice but to declare a mistrial. Green told Shaner he had no interest in pursuing any sort of “jury-tampering” charges against the reporter, since he did not believe his act had been done with any malice or in an attempt to sway the jury.
The new trial was set for May 22 at 9 a.m., with proceedings expected to last at least a full day.
Disorderly-conduct trial aborted, for now . . .
By David Long