On July 21, 1993, 29-year-old David Ogden was shot to death on the Lummi Reservation, a Native American reservation on the northern coast of the state of Washington.
Police initially charged 14-year-old Jaylene Jeffries with firing the shot that killed Ogden. Jeffries told police that she shot Ogden because she believed she and her 42-year-old mother, Ernestine James, were in physical danger after Ogden knocked Jeffries’ boyfriend unconscious in a drunken rage.
Jeffries was convicted as an adult in Washington state court of second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to prison in 1994. In March 1995, a federal grand jury charged James with aiding and abetting a manslaughter. Federal prosecutors had jurisdiction because the shooting occurred on a federal reservation.
James went on trial in U.S. District Court in Seattle, Washington in September 1995. Prosecution witnesses testified that on the day of the shooting, Ogden, who had been drinking heavily, made threatening comments to Jeffries’ boyfriend, Michas Tiatano, who, unlike James, Jeffries and Ogden, was not an American Indian. When James decided to leave the party, her van got stuck on a fishing net lying on the ground.
James and Jeffries were in the van when they heard Tiatano say, “Oh, man” and fall to the ground. Jeffries, according to witnesses, came out of the van and chased after Ogden briefly, then returned to the van and emerged with a .22-caliber pistol which she used to shoot Ogden fatally in the chest.
Jeffries testified that when she returned to the van, Ernestine was loading the gun and gave it to her. She said her mother told her that the safety was on showed her how to click the safety off.
James testified that Jeffries came back to the van, breathing heavily and begged her for the gun. “She said, ‘Mom, please, give me the gun, give me the gun.’ She said it several times,” James testified. “I just grabbed for my purse and got the gun and handed it to her. I gave it to her to protect herself and the family members. I just expected her to fend David off. I didn’t want her to shoot him. It was just to scare him away from the property.”
James testified she wanted to scare Ogden away because “I knew how violent he was and I knew that he wouldn’t stop at just one punch and he wanted to continue being violent.”
James testified that she had met Ogden at a pow-wow in Seattle and that when he was sober, he was nice and when he was drunk, he was nasty. She told the jury that Ogden had boasted that he once killed a man and got away with it; sold a man a fake watch and when the man complained, stabbed him in the neck with a pen; ripped a side view mirror from a car and beat a man unconscious with it; and robbed a man by holding him down with a knife to his face and threatening to cut out his eyes.
James said that Ogden frequently raped her if she refused to have sex with him when he was drunk. On one occasion, she said, he struck her in the face when she refused and only backed off when she shattered a drinking glass on a dresser and threatened to cut him.
She testified that Ogden started fights with random strangers and once beat a man severely, breaking his ribs, because the man was “looking at” James.
James’s defense lawyer sought to present to the jury court records and police reports showing that Ogden sat on a man and held a knife to the man’s throat and threatened to blind him; that he had 38 prior arrests, most resulting in convictions; that he was arrested for randomly striking people in a street market in Seattle; and that he on one occasion he grabbed a stranger, threw him down and beat and kicked him.
The judge refused to admit the documents in evidence. The reports described every charge of violent misconduct in Ogden’s past, even the acts that the defendant did not know about. The judge decided that the jury was only entitled to hear what James knew about Ogden’s past.
During jury deliberations, the foreman sent a note to the judge asking if there were any police or court documents to prove that it was true, as James testified that Ogden had told her, that he had stabbed a man with a pen and gotten away with a murder – or “is it a brag?”
The judge refused to tell the jurors about the records he had excluded from evidence. On September 15, 1995, the jury convicted James of aiding and abetting manslaughter. The judge sentenced her to five years’ probation and alcohol counseling.
In 1998, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the conviction and James’s attorney petitioned the entire appeals court to rehear the case. The motion was granted, the case was re-argued before a special “en banc” panel of the entire Court of Appeals, and on March 9, 1999, the court reversed James’s conviction.
The en banc court held that the records were admissible to corroborate James’s testimony about what Ogden had told her he had done in the past. The court said that “stories of previous acts of vicious violence” by Ogden were “essential” to her defense. “These stories were of such a remarkable character of atrocity that one might doubt that he had told them of himself or doubt that they had really occurred,” the court said, noting that was what prompted the jury to inquire.
The records, the court held, would have corroborated James’s own testimony and her belief that she had reason to fear Ogden “in his vicious drunken mood.” The court ordered the case to be retried.
On July 8, 1999, the prosecution dismissed the charge.
– Maurice Possley