Judge stands by decision to keep jurors overnight

It was a nationwide story: A Las Vegas judge was so concerned about her own needs that she made jurors in a murder trial pull an all-nighter rather than delay her vacation.

But District Judge Valorie Vega said unflattering news reports earlier this month were based on "false assumptions."

While the trial in question did go two weeks longer than scheduled, she said, delays that forced the all-nighter were just as much the fault of prosecutors and defense attorneys, as well as the pressures that come naturally in one of the nation's busier courts.

The trial was a second time around for Victor Fakoya, who was a university professor in Nigeria before becoming a Strip casino accountant.

In August 2008, he was accused of murder after a toddler in his care was found dead.

Fakoya's monthlong first trial ended in a mistrial in March when jurors deadlocked after three days of deliberations.

His second trial ended with acquittal following six weeks and one marathon, 18-hour day for jurors.

Vega kept the trial going until nearly 3 a.m. on Dec. 17, and then sent jurors to begin deliberations. Their verdict came in at about 7 a.m.

Juror Eric Echevarria later told a KLAS-TV reporter that "I had to fight my way not to fall asleep. It was a little bit frustrating at times. I felt that we shouldn't have been there that long."

He told the television station that staying overnight didn't change the outcome of the case. When he was told that the jury was held overnight because the judge had a vacation planned, he said it was upsetting that the judge thought her time was more valuable than his.

After the Las Vegas television station's report, a Fox News affiliate in Washington, D.C., and The Drudge Report website cast the story as one of a judge putting her personal needs and vacation plans ahead of consideration for the accused and for the comfort of jurors.

"That's like the 'when did you stop beating your wife' question," Vega said. The jury never complained about the lateness of the hour, she said.

Vega, who is the spouse of Las Vegas Review-Journal business reporter Howard Stutz, noted that one telling of the tale has her cutting short daily sessions so that she could attend her daughter's soccer games. She said she did that once, and also agreed to one full day off requested by the prosecutor and an afternoon off requested by the defense attorney

"My daughter had several soccer games (during the trial)," said Vega. "I went to one of them and (Deputy Public Defender) Norm Reed said his daughter also had a game he wanted to see.''

What forced the scheduled four-week trial to stretch into six, she said, was the meticulous but plodding presentation by the prosecution.

District Attorney David Roger offered a terse "no comment" when asked about the overnight deliberations and whether the judge's insistence to continue was appropriate. Attempts to contact prosecutor Vickie Monroe were unsuccessful.

Deputy Public Defender Norm Reed said he was pleased with the jury's verdict and he's convinced members made the correct decision, despite the grind.

Reed said he did ask the judge to adjourn until the next day after closing arguments concluded at roughly 2:45 a.m. She denied the request.

"There was no more time," said Vega, who noted that she had other hearings scheduled on Dec. 17, and that many of her staff also had Christmas vacation plans. One had surgery scheduled. And even if she canceled her vacation and allowed the case to continue, the jury would have had to come back in February.

Vega said she had already filled her January schedule with hearings pushed back because of the Fakoya trial.

In the end, Fakoya's rights were protected, all agree. Reed said jurors told him the long night "did not impact their decision. They were determined to see justice done."

He noted that while Vega did fault the attorneys for mismanaging time during the trial, " she didn't do anything to expedite the case," he said, placing the blame on the prosecution.

"I have no control over how many witnesses the prosecution calls,'' Reed said. "They had four weeks, I had three days."

Vega countered that the trial would have gone faster had Reed and co-counsel Adrian Lobo objected more often to the prosecutor's questions, which she said were often redundant or went beyond the scope.

She stands by her decision to keep the everyone on the clock.

"This jury was very diligent," she said. "They appeared alert. We gave them two opportunities to go home and they didn't want to. The first time we sent them a note (at about 5 a.m.) asking them if they wanted to go home, they said 'give us half an hour.' The second note said they wanted to stay and finish. One of those notes even had a smiley face drawn on it.

"I continue to reflect on what I can do to improve," said Vega, who has been on the bench for 11 years. Still, she admits the fallout has stung.

"What's been most upsetting for me is that I have made a career out of public service; I love serving this community," said Vega. "I felt that what was portrayed left the public with the wrong perception of this trial and all the hard work that was put into it. In the end it was a fair and just trial and that is what is most important."

In this year's Review-Journal "Judging the Judges" survey 71 percent of attorneys said she was adequate or above adequate in punctuality and in "keeping court moving." More than 90 percent said she is courteous.

"At the end of the day, I think this could have been avoided had the trial ended when it was supposed to end," said Vega. "We only had one defendant. We only had one count. There's no way this case needed to last six weeks."

Contact Doug McMurdo at dmcmurdo@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5512 or read more courts coverage at lvlegalnews.com.