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An armchair lawyer deliberates
by Nathan Orme
May 29, 2010 | 1276 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
When the James Biela trial started I made the decision not to send a Tribune reporter to cover it. I knew it would be well-attended by numerous local media outlets whose reports we could carry.

Not being in the courtroom gave me a chance to play armchair lawyer instead. Most likely I have watched too much “Law & Order” but I definitely formed some opinions about what happened, starting before the first witness was called. Thinking back on the firestorm of attention this case has generated since 2008, it seemed to me that anyone living within 50 miles of Reno knew about Denison’s disappearance and the subsequent community outpouring of support to find her. Pictures of her face or blue ribbons in her honor were displayed on every street corner from Stead to Washoe Valley. Given the fact that she was a pretty young woman generated sympathy from anyone who saw her.

That being the case, I thought it was a mistake to seat a jury of local residents instead of moving the trial to another location where people were less likely to have formed an opinion about the incident and the accused, or at least less likely to have heard about it and therefore able to approach it more objectively. However, even though this was a high-profile case in the Truckee Meadows, it was a low-budget one. Biela had to use public defenders instead of paying for private attorneys. Also, the county paying to transport witnesses and evidence to hold a trial somewhere else was not in the already slim budget. Given how the defense played out, it might turn out to be strategy for a built-in basis for an appeal for Biela.

The prosecution had DNA evidence and an expert who said it most likely was from Biela, showing it was he who raped Denison. Then there were the two other sexual assault victims who identified Biela as their attacker and showed a pattern of behavior. There was no third-party eyewitness who saw Biela do anything, but what was presented was still pretty damning evidence. Although I had to laugh when Biela was described as having a fetish for porn and women in thong underwear (so do 90 percent of American men), it was pretty creepy when police found a thong in his car.

I do not know if the jury saw this piece of evidence, but the most chilling thing I saw was the jail video of Biela’s longtime girlfriend and mother of his child visiting him just after his arrest. She was a train wreck of mixed emotions: love for the man who had been her partner for three years and horror at what he might have done. She kept asking, “Did you do this?” through a torrent of tears. His answers were barely audible and he apparently knew he was being monitored.  He never answered her question directly, but he was reported to have said something to the effect of “Would you still love me if I had done something?” and he also apologized for everything he had ever done. Noticeably absent was an adamant denial of any wrongdoing by Biela. I also don’t know how the now ex-girlfriend could have hugged him, come anywhere close to him or not punched him in the face.

After seeing that video, the “presumed innocent” part of me started to slip away. Then came the kicker: After calling just one witness, the defense rested its case. One lousy witness, who only testified that the DNA evidence had a chance of not pointing to the defendant. That testimony is textbook for a defense, but where were the alibi or character witnesses? Biela’s own family defended him in the press, but there was apparently no place for them on the witness stand. For Biela not to take the stand in his own defense is pretty standard, but unfortunately was just one more card in the deck stacked against him. With no one to say anything on his behalf and testimony that he acted strangely immediately after Denison’s body was found, I moved my name from the “uncertain” column to the “fairly convinced” column as far as his guilt.

So when the jury found him guilty on Thursday afternoon, the ending was no surprise. It will also be no surprise when they sentence him to death for the crime. For me, it would also be no surprise if this ordeal isn’t over. I will also not be surprised if he becomes another line item in the book about how money buys a defense in the American judicial system.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, “Law & Order” is on.

Nathan Orme is the editor of the Sparks Tribune. He can be reached at norme@dailysparkstribune.com.
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