Charges were thrown out in a San Juan assault case after it was revealed the county sheriff had been using the court security camera to focus on defense notes and a juror's notebook.
Some defense attorneys in San Juan County worry that Sheriff Ron Krebs has a finger on the scales of justice after learning he used a courtroom security camera to surreptitiously zoom in on defense documents and a juror’s notebook during a criminal trial last week.
The incident has drawn outrage from criminal and civil-rights attorneys and frustration from the county prosecutor, and prompted a rare weekend hearing during which a judge dismissed misdemeanor assault and trespass charges against a Lopez Island man after finding the incident amounted to government misconduct that had violated his right to a fair trial.
“I’m flabbergasted,” said San Juan Public Defender Colleen Kenimond, the attorney whose notes were targeted. “This was a court of law. You are supposed to be safe there, and the proceedings are supposed to be fair. Here, the sheriff used the courtroom to violate my client’s rights. Outrageous hardly covers it.”
Kenimond isn’t alone. San Juan County Prosecutor Randall Gaylord — whose office has been stung by misconduct in the Sheriff’s Office before — distanced himself from Krebs. “I too am frustrated at what has happened here, frustrated that it has happened to cases I personally was involved in, and concerned about the community we represent.”
Most Read Local Stories
- Coronavirus daily news updates, May 27: What to know today about COVID-19 in the Seattle area, Washington state, and the world
- Washington houses of worship allowed to hold services under Inslee's coronavirus guidance plan
- 'I'm hiding from the bank': How the bottom may be falling out of the coronavirus response
- New analysis may rewrite the history of Washington state’s coronavirus outbreak
- Coronavirus will come roaring back in King County without contact tracing, other measures, report finds
Gaylord said only the sheriff knows exactly what he was doing, and why. “We are independently elected officials,” he said.
Gaylord said no one in his office received information from the sheriff from the video in this case or any other. “We would not do that,” he said. “We have no knowledge of anything like that.
In court filings, Krebs and Gaylord insisted the incident was isolated and unintentional and resulted from security concerns about the defendant in the case, who allegedly had threatened to stab a Lopez Island grocer. Krebs, in a sworn declaration, said he “inadvertently manipulated the camera in the District Courtroom in such a way that it zoomed in on one or more locations in the courtroom” and insisted he didn’t read or pass on anything he may have seen. He claimed he did not know the camera had a zoom function.
Telephone and email messages seeking comment from Krebs were not returned.
Krebs, according to testimony and the documents, was manipulating the camera from the sheriff’s dispatch office.
Video from the surveillance camera was reviewed during a hearing Friday and Saturday by county Superior Court Judge Donald Eaton, and then sealed despite efforts by San Juan civil-rights lawyer Nick Power to have it made public. Gaylord opposes releasing the video, saying that could expose weaknesses in court security.
Eaton has set a hearing for Feb. 12 on whether to release the video. In the next several days, he is also expected to issue formal findings regarding his dismissal of the case.
Screenshots from the video provided by Power that show close-ups of a trial exhibit, a steno book belonging to the No. 3 juror in the case, and a legal pad belonging to Kenimond were introduced as evidence at the hearing and played into Eaton’s decision to dismiss the charges with prejudice, meaning they cannot be refiled. Eaton has not yet issued written findings in connection with the dismissal.
Kenimond was representing Lopez Island resident Dustin Schible in what was by all accounts a routine, low-level misdemeanor criminal trial before a district court jury when the misconduct was revealed. Power said Monday the only thing unusual was that the case was being heard by Eaton, a retired jurist who was filling in while Superior Court Judge Kathryn Loring worked on another matter.
If that hadn’t been the case, Kenimond said, the whole incident likely would have gone unnoticed. “And that might be the most frightening thing of all,” she said.
It was Loring who first realized something was amiss on Thursday, according to court filings.
Loring said she was reviewing a calendar at the desk of Jane Severin, the court administrator, which has two computer monitors — one for work and the other showing views from security cameras in and outside the San Juan County Courthouse. According to court documents, Loring said her attention was drawn to movement of one of the normally stationary cameras. A closer look revealed it was the camera located above the jury box in district court, and that it was panning, tilting and zooming in on the jury box and counsel tables.
Concerned, Severin at Loring’s request approached Eaton at a break in the case Friday. Eaton then informed Kenimond and prosecutor Gaylord. Eaton reviewed the video, then sequestered the jury Friday and began a hearing on the matter, which included testimony from Loring and Severin, as well as the county’s technology expert and Krebs.
Afterward, Eaton dismissed the charges, citing government misconduct over the camera zooming in on Kenimond’s legal pad.
It is the second case the San Juan Prosecutor’s Office has lost due to misconduct in the Sheriff’s Office in recent years. In 2016, Eaton — then sitting as a superior court judge — threw out the felony conviction of a high school teacher accused of having sex with a student after it was revealed that the sheriff’s detective on the case was having sex with the victim and had lied.
Power, in filings seeking to make the courtroom video public, said the hearing raised still unanswered questions, including why the camera in the district courtroom has zoom capabilities at all or whether the cameras can be controlled remotely from other county terminals. The security cameras in the other courtrooms and elsewhere inside the courthouse do not have zoom, tilt or pan capabilities, according to the documents.
Correction: Kathryn Loring is a San Juan County Superior Court judge, not a district judge as reported in an earlier version of this story.