GRAND JUNCTION – Eleven years ago, Marilyn Charlesworth filled out a jury questionnaire, checking “no” on three separate questions asking if she had ever been a victim of domestic violence or violence of any kind.
Her checkmarks turned out to be lies.
The lies set off a string of judicial events that reached all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court, caused a murder conviction to be thrown out, triggered a costly new six-week murder trial, and ended with a rare criminal contempt-of-court ruling against Charlesworth.
Lawyers and judicial officials say Charlesworth’s case is highly unusual — a real-life parable about the seriousness of jury duty, particularly at a time when twelve jurors and twelve more alternates have begun to hear one of the highest profile jury trials ever held in Colorado – the Aurora Theater shooting case.
“It is a serious thing to make false statements under voir dire (juror questioning),” said University of Colorado School of Law professor Christopher Mueller. “She put the system to a huge expense and a lot of unnecessary work by not being candid.”
Jefferson County District Judge Jane Tidball last week found Charlesworth guilty of contempt because her under-oath lies about her domestic-violence experiences were considered significant in the context of a trial about the ultimate form of domestic violence – the murder of the defendant’s spouse.
In 2004, a 12-person jury that included Charlesworth found Michael Blagg, an outwardly devout and devoted family man, guilty of murdering his wife, Jennifer. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Charlesworth’s credibility as a juror became the focus of nearly a decade of defense attempts to overturn Blagg’s conviction. At first, the public defenders representing Blagg unsuccessfully claimed that Charlesworth hadn’t revealed that she is legally blind, which they argued could have affected her ability to see evidence.
Later, they unsuccessfully tried to show she had lied on her juror questions when she said she had never used the anti-anxiety drug Xanax.
The public defenders finally succeeded in having Blagg’s conviction overturned because Charlesworth claimed on her juror form that she wasn’t a domestic violence victim.
The truth about her background came to light two years ago when Charlesworth spoke out at a Grand Junction City Council meeting as an advocate for abused women. She was one of many citizens who publicly called for the resignation or recall of a then city councilman who had abused his girlfriend.
Court records backed up Charlesworth’s domestic-violence history. She had sought restraining orders twice for protection from two abusive ex-husbands in the 1990s. In the petitions for those orders she had described one husband smashing a beer can on her head and another being threatening with weapons. One ex-husband was also charged with child abuse for a violent incident involving her son.
When her conflicting stories threatened to derail the Blagg conviction, Charlesworth told an investigator that she had lied to the city council about her background to make a point about abused women.
Mesa District Judge David Bottger didn’t buy it.
Based on the false claims on her jury form, he tossed out Blagg’s conviction last year. Twenty-first Judicial District Attorney Pete Hautzinger then filed a contempt charge against Charlesworth. She faces the possibility of jail or prison time and paying about $50,000 in restitution for the costs expected to be incurred to give Blagg a new trial at a yet-to-be-set date early next year.
Hautzinger has interviewed most of the jurors from the Blagg trial and said they were unanimously convinced of Blagg’s guilt. They told him Charlesworth was quiet during deliberations. She did not try to steer the jury to a guilty finding. They are not happy that their work as jurors was for naught because of her dishonesty, he said.
“This affects all of us,” said Hautzinger’s assistant district attorney Dan Rubenstein, who prosecuted the Charlesworth case. “There is a social cost to this.”
Charlesworth’s defense attorney Dan Shaffer tried to portray her in her contempt hearing as a victim of misunderstanding. He previously had tried without success to have the Colorado Supreme Court review the legality of the contempt citation. Justices refused to intervene in this portion of the twisted Blagg case. The high court had already issued an order in the case that forced a three-day bond hearing for Blagg two weeks ago. Bond was denied as a result of that hearing.
In one of many unusual twists in the case, Judge David Bottger, who had presided over the Blagg trial, became a prosecution witness in the Charlesworth case. On the witness stand, he debunked the misunderstanding argument by detailing how he had used Random House dictionary definitions of the words “domestic” and “violence” to make that crime easily understood to potential jurors. He also described the many steps in the juror selection process when Charlesworth could have changed her answers to the questions.
“This conduct cannot go unpunished,” Bottger testified.
Judge Tidball agreed.
On April 29, she found Charlesworth guilty of contempt and will sentence her in June.
“I’ve never seen a case like this,” said Rob McCallum, a spokesman for the Colorado Judicial Branch. “Contempt is a tool the court really uses sparingly.”
McCallum noted that the “the vast majority of people take their civic duty very seriously.”
Denver defense attorney and past president of the Colorado Defense Bar Daniel Recht said other potential jurors should take note of this case.
“It is outrageous for a juror to lie under oath. Such lies strike at the heart of the integrity of our jury system,” Recht told The Colorado Independent. “They are a slap in the face to our whole judicial system.”
Charlesworth could not be reached for comment, but her attorney, Dan Shaffer, stressed in the hearing that, at the time she served on the jury, she did not view herself as a victim of domestic violence.
“It’s clear now, 23 years later, that it was domestic violence. But she didn’t get counseling or confide in friends when it happened. She called it domestic violence for the first time in 2013,” Shaffer said.
Charlesworth has told Grand Junction media outlets that her abuse took time to process and she simply did not understand at the time of the Blagg trial that she was a domestic-violence victim.
She has said that she is clearly a victim now – of the judicial system.
Center for Computer Assisted Legal Instruction, Creative Commons, Flickr.