After two days of deliberations, Armand Kepler knew he and 11 other jurors would never reach a unanimous verdict in the trial of two brothers accused of killing two people and wounding three others during a robbery at a Seattle homeless camp in 2016.
Nonetheless, they met and discussed the evidence for three more days before Kepler, the jury foreman, stood up in court earlier this month and made it official: Jurors were hopelessly deadlocked in the case of James and Jerome Taafulisia. Three of the 12 jurors insisted the brothers were not guilty.
It was only later that Kepler and the other jurors learned the brothers had been previously tried for the same crimes and that jury was also declared hung, split 8 to 4 in favor of conviction.
Despite that, prosecutors plan to try the brothers a third time later this year. Though it’s unusual to have two hung juries, it does occasionally happen, said Erin Ehlert, assistant chief criminal deputy prosecutor in the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
“We still believe in this case,” Ehlert said Friday.
The Taafulisias’ younger brother, who was 13 at the time of the shootings, was convicted in juvenile court of murder and assault charges in May. The following month, the first trial for the two older brothers began in King County Superior Court. A mistrial was declared Aug. 8.
Now 16, the youngest brother will remain in custody until his 20th birthday and will then spend six months on parole as he transitions back into the community, according to disposition records in his case.
In both of the older brothers’ trials, information on the younger brother’s conviction was withheld from jurors, presumably because revealing it would prejudice the case. The Seattle Times generally does not name juveniles charged and convicted in juvenile court.
Following the first trial, a juror said one or two of his fellow jurors were convinced there was a conspiracy against the brothers, they believed the older brothers had perhaps been coerced into confessing by older members of their tight-knit Samoan community.
For Kepler, the evidence presented during the second trial of James and Jerome Taafulisia clearly pointed to the brothers’ guilt.
“As more people became exasperated with the gang of three, I had to say, ‘OK, guys, this is ridiculous,’ ” Kepler, 64, said of the growing tension in the jury room.
Kepler and two other jurors blamed the cast of unsavory characters called as witnesses in the trial and sloppy police work, especially by the lead Seattle police homicide detective, as reasons the three dissenting jurors became entrenched in their positions.
For instance, Detective James Cooper didn’t follow the police department’s policies on photo montages, and was seen in a video pointing to the photo he wanted a witness to pick, Kepler said. Cooper failed to follow up on some investigative leads, and on the stand, Kepler said, the detective came across as cocky. Another detective didn’t write a report about the case until June, five months after the shootings.
“With their sloppiness, (the detectives) just left all these doors open for people to have their theories and their thoughts,” Kepler said.
Another juror, who asked not to be named to protect his privacy, said the three dissenting jurors failed to follow the judge’s instructions.
“They didn’t believe (the police), they didn’t believe the evidence. The evidence pointed to the young men clear as the nose on your face,” he said. “It was frustrating for a lot of us. It got heated at times.”
Phone messages left for two of the dissenting jurors this week were not returned and a phone number for the third juror was no longer in service.
Though the Jungle shootings occurred in Seattle, both trials were held at the Maleng Regional Justice Center (RJC) in Kent.
That’s because at the time, juvenile defendants charged as adults, like the older Taafulisia brothers, were housed at the RJC. In late 2017, a class-action lawsuit filed by four juveniles held in solitary confinement at the RJC prompted King County Executive Dow Constantine to order all juvenile defendants charged as adults be housed at the Youth Services Center in Seattle.
But by then, James and Jerome Taafulisia had both turned 18 and their case had been assigned to Superior Court Judge Cheryl Carey, who was based at the Kent courthouse, Ehlert said. The parties decided to keep the case in Kent.
Carey, who presided over the brothers’ two trials, retired from the court on Friday — and Ehlert said prosecutors will file a motion to move the case from the RJC to the King County Courthouse in Seattle at a case-setting hearing next week.
“It’s a Seattle case,” she said, and since it will be assigned to a new judge anyway, it makes sense “to move the case from Kent back to Seattle.”
Because the case is pending, Ehlert declined to discuss what may have led to the two mistrials. Defense attorney Dan Norman, who represents James Taafulisia, also declined to comment because the case is not resolved.
According to police, on the night of Jan. 26, 2016, the brothers approached Phat Nguyen, the target of the robbery, while he was seated by a firepit with several other people in “The Caves,” a camp within the larger Jungle homeless encampment. Nguyen, 46, was shot in the chest and a man sitting next to him, 33-year-old James Tran, was shot twice and died on the way to Harborview Medical Center.
Nguyen’s girlfriend, 47-year-old Tracy Bauer, and Amy Jo Shinault, 41, were both shot in the back. Nguyen, Bauer and Shinault all survived.
One of the brothers grabbed Nguyen’s bag and jacket, which contained a couple of hundred dollars and a small amount of drugs, police said.
As the group ran away, police say one of the teens fired into a tent, hitting Jeanine Brooks in the chest. The 45-year-old died at the scene.
A video secretly recorded by police informants of James and Jerome Taafulisia, along with their then 13-year-old brother, bragging about committing the crimes; the two handguns — one purchased by an informant, the other found in the brothers’ tent; two $100 bills used to buy the gun; and a ski mask like the ones worn by the assailants were among the pieces of evidence admitted during the older brothers’ trials.
The three brothers were each charged with two counts of first-degree murder and three counts of first-degree assault in February 2016.
“I would not wish that on anyone, what happened to the victims,” said Derric Miller, an Algona man who served on the second jury. “The evidence presented to us left me with no doubt whatsoever. They shot Jeanine Brooks and (James) Tran and left the rest for dead.
“It makes my stomach hurt just talking about it,” Miller said. “We heard a lot of awful things.”
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this story.