On Aug. 9, a mistrial was declared after a King County jury became hopelessly deadlocked following weeks of evidence in the murder and assault trial of James and Jerome Taafulisia. A new trial is scheduled to begin in January.
After their first trial ended in a hung jury last month, a new trial has been ordered for two brothers accused of fatally shooting two people and injuring three others during a robbery at the Jungle homeless encampment in Seattle in January 2016.
A King County jury became hopelessly deadlocked and a mistrial was declared Aug. 9 in the first-degree murder and assault trial for James and Jerome Taafulisia, who were 17 and 16 when they and their younger brother allegedly stormed into a camp known as “the Caves” with the intent of robbing a drug dealer.
The new trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 9 at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, and Superior Court Judge Cheryl Carey will preside, as she did at the first trial.
Over several days in June, 306 prospective jurors were questioned about their ability to serve and 227 of them were excused for hardship, given the length of the trial, court records show. An additional 18 potential jurors were dismissed for cause or as the result of peremptory challenges, before a jury of six men, six women and three alternates was seated.
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For the new trial, which is expected to last four to six weeks, a “special jury” will be summoned, the records say. That means instead of selecting jurors from a general jury pool, people will be summoned specifically for the Taafulisia brothers’ second trial.
Interviews with several jurors from the first trial — all of whom voted for guilt — described a panel that was leaning toward conviction but unable to overcome the doubts of a few members.
Debbie O’Neal, a preschool teacher and children’s book author from Federal Way, was the jury’s forewoman during the first trial. She said jurors were split eight-to-four in favor of convicting the two older brothers, now 20 and 18, on two counts of first-degree murder and three counts of first-degree assault.
“We all felt it was a tragic situation all the way around, not just the crimes, but the lives these kids were living,” O’Neal, 61, said of the three brothers, who were living in a tent, weren’t attending school, had sporadic contact with their mother and whose male role models were all involved in the drug scene.
While the older brothers were charged as adults, their younger brother, who was 13 at the time, was prosecuted in juvenile court and convicted of the murder and assault charges in May, court records show.
The youngest brother wasn’t armed but was a full participant in the robbery that quickly turned bloody, say the records. Now 16, he 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.
That information was withheld from jurors who heard weeks of testimony in the case against the older brothers, presumably because revealing the younger boy’s conviction would prejudice the case.
Security during the trial was exceptional. Both O’Neal and Phillip Yarish, another juror, remarked that a metal detector and additional police officers appeared partway through the trial. They later learned it was because someone had posted photos and video of a key witness on social media.
Yarish, a retired military EMT who lives in Renton, said one or two of his fellow jurors were convinced there was a conspiracy against the brothers, and nothing would have made them believe otherwise.
Those jurors thought the brothers, as juveniles, had perhaps been coerced into confessing by older members of the tight-knit Samoan community they belonged to, said Yarish, who became convinced of the brothers’ guilt during the final days of trial.
“Many of the people were just entrenched. They had their reasonable doubt something was going on here, and it wasn’t as simple as these boys on tape, admitting what they did,” he said.
The tape Yarish was referring to is a 90-minute audio and video recording obtained by two police informants of the three brothers bragging about committing the crimes. At one point in the recording, one of the informants left the tent, secretly got $500 from a police detective, and purchased from the brothers a .45-caliber handgun that police say was one of the two guns used in the shootings, according to evidence presented at trial.
But O’Neal and Yarish said the recording — perhaps the most damning piece of the state’s evidence — was of poor quality, shot inside the brothers’ tent pitched near Fourth Avenue South and South Royal Brougham Way. There were people milling about, and the sounds of dogs barking and traffic whizzing above on Interstate 5 made it difficult to hear, O’Neal and Yarish said.
During deliberations, jurors watched the video at least three times, stopping and starting it as they dissected the footage, the two jurors said.
They noted too that the video was choppy, with gaps in the footage. After the mistrial, the jurors were told it had been edited to remove statements about crimes unrelated to the shootings, O’Neal said.
Yarish said it was frustrating, trying to piece the incident together while knowing the jury was not getting all of the information about what happened — including the identities of up to three other males who apparently accompanied the Taafulisia brothers to the campsite within the Caves, which once stretched from near Interstate 90 in Sodo all the way to the edge of Georgetown.
Dave Bjorkman, another juror, said James Taafulisia’s defense attorney, Dan Norman, did a good job of pointing out “all of the little things” Seattle police detectives did during their investigation that didn’t follow department policy.
For instance, Detective Jonathan Huber, who was responsible for managing the informants, didn’t write any notes about his role in the investigation until June 2016, five months after the shootings, said Bjorkman, 62, of Federal Way.
And Detective James Cooper, the lead homicide detective, didn’t follow newly introduced policies on how to conduct photo montages, he said.
As a result, “there was a certain amount of contempt for the police work that was done,” said Bjorkman, a Boeing assembly mechanic.
He said sitting through the trial gave him a glimpse into a world of drugs and homelessness that he’d never seen before.
“These kids were raised from a very young age in that environment, and my heart went out to them,” Bjorkman said. “I felt they were guilty of the crimes, but I felt very, very sorry for the life they were in.”
According to court records:
On the night of Jan. 26, 2016, a group of masked men approached Phat Nguyen, the target of the robbery, from behind. Seated around a fire pit with several other people, Nguyen, 46, was shot in the chest with a .45-caliber handgun. The man sitting next to him, 33-year-old James Tran, was shot twice with the .45 and died on the way to Harborview Medical Center.
Nguyen’s girlfriend, 47-year-old Tracy Bauer, and Amy Jo Shinault, 41, were each shot in the back. Nguyen, Bauer and Shinault all survived.
One of the suspects grabbed Nguyen’s bag and jacket, which contained a couple of hundred dollars and a small amount of drugs.
As the group ran away, one of the shooters fired a .22-caliber handgun into a tent, hitting Jeanine Brooks, also known as Jeanine Zapata, in the chest. The 45-year-old died at the scene.
Police would later match the casings to the .45 caliber handgun purchased by the police informant and a .22-caliber handgun police later found in the brothers’ tent.
Soon after the shootings, word on the street was that another man was responsible for the deaths, but it turned out he was in Federal Way at the time, court records say.
Around noon on Jan. 27, 2016, that man’s brother-in-law received a phone call from James Taafulisia, who warned that the Federal Way man was being implicated in the shootings. The man who received the phone call and his brother secretly recorded subsequent phone conversations with James Taafulisia and Taafulisia’s mother, who said the three Taafulisia brothers were responsible for the shootings, according to the records.
The two men who recorded the phone conversations contacted Seattle police and detectives were able to use their statements to get a warrant from a judge, authorizing police to use a wire, the records say. Both men agreed to act as police informants to clear their relative’s name and because they felt it was the right thing to do, say the court records.