On Tuesday, February 21st, I was lucky enough to spend a little over an hour at the Blackhawk County Courthouse. The hour I spent was observing a domestic violence trial in courtroom 109. I learned a lot in my hour and it was a great experience.
When I got to the courthouse, the court clerk directed me to courtroom 109 where she assured me that a trial would be starting at 1pm. As I made my way to the courtroom, I was stopped by a young women who asked me if I was going to be observing the trial. I replied that I was and told her why I was there. The woman ended up being Molly Edwards, the prosecuting attorney. Ms. Edwards was extremely friendly and chatted with me before the trial began. She told me that she had gotten her undergraduate degree from UNI and then introduced me to the Judge (Jeffery Harris) and the defense attorney (Heather Badovinac).
The trial was a domestic violence case involving the defendant, Telly Waters, and the victim, his wife (Mrs. Waters). Before the jury, that was picked earlier that morning, was brought in, the Judge swore Mrs. Waters in as a witness. In order to avoid self-incrimination, Mrs. Waters invoked her 5th amendment right. Judge Harris asked: “Do you still intend to invoke your 5th amendment right”? and Mrs. Waters responded with a resounding: “Yes Your Honor”. After Mrs. Waters invoked her 5th amendment right, she stepped down from the stand and the Judge called for a 15-minute recess. I was confused as to why there was a recess when the trial had only just begun. Ms. Badovinac came and sat by me in the pews in the back of the courtroom and said: “I bet that was really confusing huh? Would you like me to explain what just happened?”. I took her up on the offer immediately. She explained that because Mrs. Waters pled the 5th, she needed an attorney for herself, a public defender. The recess was called so that the State could find her a public defender that wouldn’t have a conflict of interest in the case.
After the recess, the Judge returned to the courtroom and so did Mrs. Waters and her new public defender. The judge allowed the prosecution, Ms. Edwards, to meet with Mrs. Waters and her lawyer. Ms. Edwards talked to Mrs. Waters about testifying in front of the jury and what she would ask in order to avoid Mrs. Waters incriminating herself. Ms. Edwards planned to ask about prior dates of complaints of domestic violence from 2010-2013.
Then things got a little crazy. And I should mention that all this time, Mr. Waters, the defendant, was just sitting next to the defense attorney very calm and didn’t really seem to be too concerned about the fact that he was on trial for abusing his wife. Anyway, Ms. Edwards had a sheet that she had Mrs. Waters sign about what she would be testifying to and then Ms. Edwards gave it to the Judge and the Ms. Badovinac to look at. The defense attorney had some questions about the prior accusations that would be brought up in trial. Ms. Edwards and Ms. Badovinac got into a debate about sealed and public records and if they could be evidence. Before I could fully comprehend what was happening, the defense attorney stated: “I believe it would be appropriate in this case for the court to recuse itself from hearing this case”. The judge kind of looked confused as he responded: “You want me to recuse myself and cause a mistrial?”. After about five minutes, Judge Harris ended up agreeing with Ms. Badovinac and much to the displeasure of Ms. Edwards, declared a mistrial.
By that time, I was extremely confused. There was a mistrial before the jury had even entered the room. Ms. Badovinac left with Mr. Waters and Mrs. Waters left with her attorney and the Judge left as well. It ended up being just Ms. Edwards and I in the room. She asked me if I had any questions and I asked her to please explain what had just happened. So she did. According to Ms. Edwards, prior bad acts are admissible as evidence in a trial for domestic violence and Mr. Waters had previous convictions as well as 3 previous arrests. Mrs. Waters requested a civil non-contact order but then she tried to cancel it. The defense claimed that they didn’t know about the non-contact order but the State said that the defense had multiple opportunities to know about it. Ms. Edwards told me that she never read the sealed file and she “didn’t need to know what was in the complaint that led to the non-contact order, just the fact that there was a complaint”. She then actually showed me the sealed document and it was clear that no one had opened it.
I then asked Ms. Edwards why that meant Judge Harris had to recuse himself from the case and she told me it was because he knew about the prior cases against Mr. Waters and told the parties about them which meant he had some conflict of interest.
After we finished talking about the case, out of curiosity, I asked Ms. Edwards how she prepared for a trial like this. She told me that she first reviewed evidence including police reports and sometimes she talked to witnesses. In this case, Mrs. Waters refused to talk to her. Then she said she filed a trial information sheet and she showed me the trial information sheet for the case. I noticed that certain lines were blacked out on the sheet and I asked her why. She said: “there are some things that we can’t reveal about a defendant to the jury in order to not predispose them in any way”. The things that were blacked out were information about the number of offenses committed by the defendant along with the seriousness of the offense. According to Ms. Edwards, both of those things would predispose the jury against the defendant even though the same information would likely come to light during the trial anyway. I thought it was really cool that she showed the sheet to me! After the trial information was filed, they went to arraignment where the defendant either plead guilty or not guilty, then they moved on to pre trial where often times a deal is offered or made and then trial.
Something else that I was curious about was the fact that Ms. Edwards and Ms. Badovinac, the two competing attorneys seemed to be very friendly with each other before the trial and even during the recess during the trial. I asked Ms. Edwards if they were actually friends and she said that they were. She told me that “during the trial, we go at it, but I work with her so often that it’s important to maintain a good relationship outside of the courtroom”.
I feel really lucky to have had the experience that I did. I never expected to have so much one on one time with one of the attorneys and I am extremely thankful that Ms. Edwards answered all of my questions. They all, but especially Ms. Edwards genuinely seemed to care about making sure I had the best experience possible and were happy that I was observing the trial. I am really glad that I got this experience and really happy that I had a great time!