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Child rape case conviction reversed over Las Vegas judge’s outburst

Updated September 6, 2019 - 9:44 am

A Las Vegas judge’s outburst at a potential juror during a child rape trial forced the Nevada Supreme Court in a decision handed down Thursday to reverse the defendant’s conviction and life sentence.

District Judge Richard Scotti swore and hurled a pocket U.S. Constitution against a courtroom wall during jury selection in the trial of Jose Azucena, a man prosecutors said spent two years luring children with candy and molesting them in his northeast valley apartment complex.

The judge lashed out at a prospective juror who said she could not be unbiased toward Azucena because of her exposure to child abuse in her job as a nurse, according to court records.

“No, listen, what — what we’re not going to have in this jury is people coming in overnight and thinking up s—- and try to make s—- up now so they can get out of the jury,” a transcript from the trial in early 2017 reads. “That’s not going to happen. All right. All right. Because if I find that someone said something yesterday under oath and changes it because they’re trying to fabricate something to get out of serving on this jury, there’s going to be repercussions.”

The woman was ultimately excused from the panel, but in the reversal the high court found that Scotti “did nothing to alleviate the intimidating atmosphere that he created.”

A three-justice panel of James Hardesty, Lidia Stiglich and Abbi Silver found that Scotti’s behavior constituted judicial misconduct “and may have discouraged other prospective jurors from answering candidly about their own biases,” adding that “we cannot be convinced that an impartial jury was selected.”

Azucena was convicted of 25 felonies and five gross misdemeanors, including sexual assault of a minor under 14, first-degree kidnapping, lewdness with a child under 14, child abuse and indecent exposure. Azucena, who remains in prison on a separate conviction, was a close family friend of five girls prosecutors said were victimized between November 2014 and October 2016.

Scotti responded to the decision while at the Regional Justice Center on Thursday afternoon.

“First and foremost, I regret what happened, obviously,” the judge said. “Despite that incident, I do have tremendous respect for our jury system and all of our jurors and our potential jurors.”

During the trial, Azucena’s lawyers asked to have new prospective jurors impaneled before testimony began, but the judge called the request “ludicrous,” the opinion states.

Deputy Public Defender Carli Kierny, who represented Azucena at trial, said she had not encountered a similar outburst from the bench in her roughly 12 years of practice, adding that the judge was hostile with attorneys in the case before trial started.

She recalled that Scotti gestured with the pocket Constitution in his hand before throwing it.

“His behavior throughout the entire case was inexcusable,” Kierny said. “Jurors, the state of Nevada, everybody deserves better than that.”

Fellow Deputy Public Defender David Westbrook, another of Azucena’s attorneys, agreed.

“Judge Scotti’s job — and the job of all trial judges — is to ensure the selection of a fair and impartial jury,” Westbrook said. “His treatment of this prospective juror and of the attorneys before him was unconscionable, and I am glad the Supreme Court held him accountable in a published opinion that will provide guidance to other judges on this vitally important issue.”

Prosecutors declined to comment on the decision.

Contact David Ferrara at dferrara@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039. Follow @randompoker on Twitter.

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