Douglas County District Judge Peter Bataillon was a bit harried.
He was out of his element — having abandoned his normal courtroom and settled into the City-County Building’s Legislative Chambers, which currently hosts most jury selections to allow the jury pool to socially distance. And the judge was distracted: One prospective juror had complained that another wasn’t wearing a mask.
The judge then inadvertently added to the disarray.
Ladies and gentlemen, he announced to the jury last month. We’re here in the case of (a North Platte man), charged with second-offense domestic violence.
And with that, the case was over. The problem: By declaring that the defendant was accused of a second offense, he had poisoned the jury pool with the knowledge that the defendant had previously been convicted of the same charge.
It was the equivalent of announcing: We’re here in the case of compulsive liar Pinocchio.
Finishing his standard introduction — while replaying the mess-up in his mind — Bataillon asked the attorneys on the case to approach the bench. They did.
“I said, ‘Aw, shucks,’ ” Bataillon recalled. “ ‘I think I have to declare a mistrial.’ ”
The attorneys agreed.
Bataillon isn’t alone in having a tongue-trip derail a trial. Ten years ago, his colleague, Douglas County District Judge Gary Randall, announced to prospective jurors that they would be deciding the matter of a second-offense weapons violation. Attorneys alerted Randall to his slip-up — and he declared a mistrial.
The problem in both cases: Juries are supposed to base their decision only on the evidence in the current case, not on the reputation or record of the accused.
In Bataillon’s case, the allegations actually were more than just the defendant’s second set of domestic violence charges. A record search shows that the North Platte man has been charged with domestic assault at least three times. If convicted of the current charge, those previous convictions would elevate this case to a felony.
Bataillon reset the 33-year-old man’s trial for the last week of November.
The slip-up will cost the county. Each juror receives $35 a day in juror pay, plus mileage, so court officials estimate that they will pay out at least $1,500 for the five-minute jury gathering.
After his slip-up, Bataillon met briefly with the attorneys on the case, then turned to the three dozen prospective jurors.
“I couldn’t believe I did that,” he said. “I said, ‘I shouldn’t say those things ... So, ladies and gentlemen, this is your lucky day — your jury service is complete.’