August 1, 2012 - 11:04 am
The defense lawyers swarmed on every legal issue in the Hells Angels assault trial, just as their clients were accused of swarming rival gang members in a 2008 wedding chapel brawl.
And much as security video shows how their clients fared in the melee, the defense lawyers won their fight Wednesday.
Albeit on a technicality.
District Judge Michael Villani declared a mistrial, stating prosecutors had failed to turn over evidence to defense attorneys in the case.
The trial was for eight of 13 men, including members of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, charged with bludgeoning three Mongols at A Special Memory Wedding Chapel.
The eight defendants are Dominic Orlando, Frederick O’Dell, Brandon Young, James Sexey, John Dawson, Jeffrey Murray, John Merchant, and Armando Porras. They faced about a dozen felony and misdemeanor counts, including attempted murder, battery and conspiracy.
Following the judge’s ruling, jubilant defense attorneys hugged each other and some of their clients while declaring victory.
“The Hells Angels have once again been victorious in a courtroom in Southern Nevada,” attorney Chris Rasmussen said.
Villani made his decision after learning that a lead Las Vegas police detective in the case had testified in a child custody hearing for one of the victims years after the brawl.
The detective’s testimony revolved around whether the victim was still a member of the Mongols after the brawl.
Assistant District Attorney Chris Owens said, “We thought it had very limited relevance to the case.”
The defense attorneys felt otherwise. Attorney Trish Palm said not knowing about the testimony beforehand hampered the defense’s ability “to impeach or cross-examine” witnesses.
Attorney Jim Oronoz said, “The government, like everyone else, has to play by the rules and turn over the evidence.”
The court record of the trial shows Palm, Oronoz and others were constantly hammering motions and objections related to prosecutors not handing over evidence.
For instance, two weeks ago during jury selection, the defense was given 1,886 pages of documents related to an expert who was to testify for the prosecution.
Villani had ruled it did not violate any discovery rules, Owens recalled.
However, at the time, defense attorney Tom Pitaro called it a “document dump” violating discovery rules, and motioned to strike part of the prosecution’s case, according to the court’s minutes.
The case moved forward. The jury heard testimony from numerous witnesses, including the victims, that the defendants’ attack was “unprovoked.” A video of the fight also shows the leader of the Hells Angels punching one of the Mongols, Owens said.
The defense lawyers said their clients were acting in self-defense because other Mongols had months earlier attacked and killed a Hells Angel in San Francisco. Also, Mongols indicted in Las Vegas on federal charges were found to have pictures of the local Hells Angels and had done background checks on them, Pitaro said.
And while the case in front of the jury didn’t appear to be going well for the defense, behind the scenes brewed a larger issue that the defense lawyers believed could torpedo the case.
Last week, members of the jury noted that they were parking in the same parking garage as some of the defendants, even though the court marshals had taken great pains to separate the two groups inside the courthouse.
There was no evidence that any act of intimidation took place, but prosecutors feared the defendants might write down the jurors’ license plates and track them down. Owens asked Villani to order the defendants to park elsewhere. Villani declined.
On Friday, Las Vegas police showed up in the parking lot. When the crew of defense lawyers heard of the police presence in the parking lot, they pounced.
Oronoz, whose client actually walked to the courthouse, exclaimed on Tuesday that the police presence was prejudicial to the jury and created an “inference of danger.” In other words, jurors – after noting they were using the same parking lot as the defendants and then seeing police – might believe the defendants posed a danger to them.
Oronoz asked for a hearing on the matter to determine who told the police to “magically appear” in the parking lot. He suggested that prosecutors had discussed the issue with Chief Judge Jennifer Togliatti outside the presence of the defense attorneys.
Villani said he would review the matter and consider a hearing. Meanwhile, Owens kept asking the judge to order the defendants to park elsewhere, which Villani agreed to do on Tuesday.
However, there is no longer a need for a hearing on the parking issue now that a mistrial has been declared on the discovery issues.
What happens next is unclear. Owens said Villani on Wednesday left the courtroom after declaring the mistrial without setting a date for a status check.
In the meantime, the second of the three trials was set to begin Aug. 13, court records show.
The five remaining defendants in the case will face similar charges in two other separate trials.
Authorities say the melee at A Special Memory Wedding Chapel on Fourth Street and Gass Avenue on Dec. 20, 2008, injured at least six, including three members of the Mongols biker gang, two of whom were stabbed.
The brawl followed a wedding ceremony the Hells Angels were attending. As they were leaving, they saw at least three Mongols at the chapel for a different wedding. The 13 men attacked the Mongols, bludgeoning them with their fists, feet, bottles and trash cans.
Defense attorneys said their clients were acting in self-defense.
Prosecutors called it an unprovoked attack by gang members.
Contact reporter Francis McCabe at
email@example.com or 702-380-1039.