The 54-year-old mother of a murder defendant was held in jail for 10 days without bail or a court hearing after she borrowed a juror's cellphone during the trial.
Gina Dotson, of California, was arrested two weeks ago on a contempt charge after District Judge Michelle Leavitt learned of the incident and feared it could lead to jury tampering.
"I thought it was highly probable that someone was trying to tamper with this jury," Leavitt on Thursday told defense attorneys who were trying to secure Dotson's release from jail.
Nevada law calls for an immediate hearing when a judge issues a contempt order. However, Dotson was not given a hearing at the time of the incident.
Leavitt said she was concerned about holding a hearing without Dotson having legal representation. Leavitt said she had referred the case to the county public defender's office immediately after charging Dotson with contempt.
Since Jan. 24, Dotson had been contacted once by a deputy public defender by telephone.
Court records show Dotson was scheduled to appear before Leavitt at least twice, on Jan. 27 and Jan. 30. Both times the case was continued.
Public Defender Phil Kohn said his office had sent a lawyer to represent Dotson on Jan. 27, but Leavitt delayed that hearing until Jan. 30.
Kohn said a deputy public defender waited three hours Jan. 30 to be heard in Dotson's case. Kohn said the lawyer was going to demand that Dotson be released from jail. However, Leavitt continued the hearing.
Kohn said a third hearing not reflected in the court record had been scheduled for Jan. 25, but it also was delayed.
He said Dotson was transferred from the jail to the courthouse on at least two occasions, but was kept in a holding cell and not brought into Leavitt's courtroom.
By Wednesday, veteran defense attorneys had heard Dotson was being held in jail without bail and without having appeared before a judge in more than a week.
That violates criminal procedure that mandates in-custody defendants appear before a judge 72 hours after being arrested.
Two attorneys, Alzora Jackson and Stephanie Kice, took the case pro bono and scheduled Thursday's hearing, where they sought Dotson's immediate release and asked Leavitt to recuse herself from hearing Dotson's case.
Leavitt agreed to release Dotson and to send the case to Chief Judge Jennifer Togliatti, but not before trying to explain the contempt charge.
According to statements made by Leavitt and other sources, the incident unfolded Jan. 24 while Eugene Ross, Dotson's son, and KC Coulter stood trial in the 2006 prostitution-related robbery and slaying of Joseph Kevin Smalley.
During a break in the case, Ross' attorneys were trying, with the help of Dotson, to contact a defense witness. Dotson, who did not have a cellphone, was using attorney Dan Bunin's phone before he was called back into court.
Dotson, outside Leavitt's courtroom, was worried that the witness still had not been notified of a scheduling change for her to testify.
The witness was to testify that Ross had an alibi for the time Smalley was shot 19 times.
Dotson approached a group of jurors who were standing at the other end of the hallway and asked a male juror to borrow his cellphone.
He asked her for a cigarette in exchange. Dotson, who had just one left, offered him half of one.
The juror, described as young by Leavitt, loaned Dotson his iPhone. She then called the witness.
Jurors are told throughout the course of a trial not to speak with anyone involved in the case, including judges, witnesses, media, and anyone associated with either the defense or prosecution.
Several jurors were concerned about the incident and informed a court marshal who told Leavitt.
The judge confiscated the cellphone for the remainder of the trial. Once in her possession, the juror's phone rang with the number that Dotson had called, Leavitt said.
Leavitt answered and identified herself.
The female caller did not identify herself, Leavitt said, adding, "She wasn't very pleasant."
The judge said at that point she believed the person on the phone was attempting to tamper with the juror.
"I'll be honest, it was my belief that whoever that person was, their absolute intent was to speak to a juror," the judge said.
Leavitt ordered Dotson locked up and canvassed the jurors to see if they had been tampered with. After interviewing the 14 jurors, including two alternates, Leavitt decided they could continue despite objections from the defense lawyers.
The prosecutor in the case, Giancarlo Pesci, said Thursday that at the time he believed Dotson was possibly trying to tamper with the jury.
Pesci referred to an incident that happened Jan. 23 involving Dotson that led him to that conclusion.
On Jan. 23, Dotson had informed a court marshal that she believed she saw someone in the courtroom who had tried to dissuade defense witnesses from testifying.
A brief hearing was held, and it turned out to be much ado about nothing.
However, after the cellphone incident, Pesci said, "I honestly have to say that at the time when this all occurred I thought it was possible that there was something being done to thwart this jury going forward."
Pesci had an investigator follow up on the cellphone incident and came to the conclusion that Dotson made a "mistake" when she asked to use the juror's cellphone.
"I honestly think that Ms. Dotson didn't know she shouldn't borrow a juror's cellphone," Pesci said.
He added that the district attorney's office would not be pursuing jury tampering charges against Dotson, because there was no probable cause.
In the midst of his murder trial, Eugene Ross watched as his mother was handcuffed and hauled off to jail. He would later testify in his own defense. His defense attorneys said Ross was adversely affected by what had happened to his mother.
Ross, 31, and Coulter, 34, were convicted of first-degree murder and other charges. Ross' mother testified at a penalty hearing on the murder charge. She was brought to the courthouse in chains and wearing jail scrubs. She was allowed to change clothes before testifying on her son's behalf.
Ross was sentenced to 20 to 50 years, the minimum for a first-degree murder conviction.
Ross' defense attorneys plan to appeal the conviction on a number of issues, including that Leavitt disallowed a confession made by Ross' co-defendant that indicated Ross was not involved in the slaying.
The appeal also will focus on jury issues, including a separate contempt charge leveled against a prospective juror. Leavitt fined a juror $500 several days before the incident involving Dotson.
The juror, a doctoral candidate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, was held in contempt and fined after she told Leavitt she didn't feel she could concentrate on the case because of her upcoming dissertation defense.
The day, before, she had told Leavitt she could stay on the case, but changed her mind after sleeping on it.
After that contempt hearing, the jury had to be canvassed because the jurors had heard about the fine.
Leavitt said she felt she did not need a new jury after questioning the jurors.
Contact Francis McCabe at email@example.com or 702-380-1039.