Third District Court Judge Paul Maughan had called for silence when the verdict in the David James “DJ” Bell case was read, but after gasps, muffled shrieks of joy and some bursting into tears, he threw his pencil down and left the chambers. It’s uncertain whether he did so because of the response or the verdict. The 15-month case came to a close on Friday, Sept. 25.
Maughan had Bell’s defense attorneys on a short leash in the case where Bell faced a minimum sentence of 30 years, and a possible life sentence, in what prosecutors called a kidnapping case and what the defense called vigilante justice on July 4, 2008.
After July 3 fireworks in South Salt Lake, Lulu Latu, her common-law husband Ieti Mageo and over a dozen relatives partied in the driveway of their home past 6:00 a.m. Bell had gone to talk to those at the gathering to ask if anyone had seen his cat and was invited to stay. Six children were at the party and were in and out of the house most of the night, according to testimony. Latu says she put the children down to sleep and went to check on them at 6:00 a.m. only to find two of them no longer in the living room of the house. She “instinctively” went next door to Bell’s house and found the children there and “went ballistic,” yelling and hitting Bell before leaving with the children, warning him to lock the doors and windows because when the rest of her family found out the children were there, she didn’t “know what they’ll do.”
Bell and his partner Dan Fair, along with several others who were in the house, indeed locked the doors, only to have them and the windows bashed in minutes later as about five friends and family members pounded Fair with pots, pans and a large-screen television, sending him to the hospital for three days with severe head injuries. They also grabbed Bell by the hair, dragged him to the driveway cut him with broken glass and bashed his head into the ground and the brick wall of the house hard enough to cause his brain to slam against his skull, causing a “mild traumatic brain injury” and hearing loss from which he still suffers.
It is the brain injury, the defense attorneys argued, that led Bell to giving a confusing and contradicting interview to South Salt Lake Police Detective Darren Carr shortly after the incident. At one point in the interview, Bell said, “she was talking at the time and I decided to take them over. I shouldn’t have. It was not my place.”
Defense Attorney Roger Kraft said that South Salt Lake police went from that statement “backwards” and sought no evidence other than what might support it. He listed 10 people who were at the two houses who were never interviewed and read from the police department’s policy manual that a kidnapping scene must be secured and processed, which it never was.
“They took 20 pictures of the Latu house,” Kraft said. “My mother takes that many pictures before the candles are out on the cake,” he quipped in the hallway during a recess.
The police and prosecutors argued that Bell took the sleeping children, two- and four-years-old, out a locked back door, back to the front of the house, over a four-foot fence, to his home and into his bedroom where his partner was sleeping.
Police waited three days before taking any photos and took nothing else as evidence, according to testimony. Kraft argued that the footprints in the grass would have bolstered their story, but no photos were taken, nor was the fence processed for fibers, hairs or blood.
The defense team brought a former detective in who had studied the case to testify that Carr, as lead detective in the case, had done a shoddy investigative job. The prosecution brought in their own witness to say that, but for the scene not being secured and processed, it was handled in a normal fashion.
In closing statements, Kraft spent 75 minutes convincing the jury that the state had not met their burden of proof in the charges against Bell. He argued that the charges of Bell choosing to kidnap children in front of nearly a dozen drinking adults, in daylight, and to a house that contained several other adults were ludicrous. “It shows how insane this idea is,” he said.
He argued that prosecution witnesses — all friends and family who were at the party — were caught in several lies during their testimony.
Kraft said the defense team chose not to “play the gay card,” but the fact that Bell and his partner, Fair, are a gay couple does play into the case, saying that Latu jumped to a “preconceived conclusion” as to why the children were in the home because of what she believes about gay men. Latu left the courtroom in tears as Kraft called her motives and parenting skills into question.
Prosecutor Tupakk Renteria argued that the defense, instead, “played the Polynesian card” by saying calling the parents “neglectful” for having an all-night drinking party and not watching their children.
Renteria, in a short closing, said that the case was as simple as the fact that the children were found in the Bell home without the parents’ knowledge.
Judge Maughan did not want the jury hearing about the beating that followed Latu finding the children, saying that what happened after the children were discovered was not relevant to the kidnapping case.
Maughan sent the jury out of the courtroom on Thursday to admonish defense attorney Susanne Gustin for what he called “painting [Bell] as a victim” rather than the defendant in the case as she cross-examined the prosecution witnesses.
The jury was also sent out of the courtroom later that day so defense attorney Roger Kraft could argue that Bell, who had been called to the stand to testify in his defense, should be able to say that his head was beaten on the driveway, then dragged to the side of his house and his head slammed against a brick wall, causing him to lose consciousness. He said it went to his state of mind during the interview with Carr.
Maughan refused to allow the testimony, and Kraft pulled Bell from the witness chair before the jury was returned to the room.
The jury deliberated just two and a half hours before returning a clean-slate “not guilty” verdict to all counts. Two jury members have talked to the press, saying the trial was a waste of time and money.
Of the four-day trial, juror Natasha Jorgensen told the Salt Lake Tribune, “We agreed, as a jury, that it cost taxpayers at least $100,000, and our time was wasted, as well.”
“We were appalled because it had come this far … There was just no evidence,” Jorgensen continued. “I would hate to have a neighbor kid come to my house and become a D.J. Bell myself.”
South Salt Lake City nor the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office have yet to prosecute the family for what Bell and Fair supporters are calling “vigilante justice” and a hate crime.
Fair was not in the courtroom most of the week as he feared for his life after being threatened by Polynesian men at the courthouse.
Bell faced a minimum sentence of 30 years, 15 for each of the two kidnapping charges, and a maximum life penalty if convicted.