DOUBLE SPRINGS - Winston County Circuit Judge Lee Carter granted a mistrial motion Thursday, Feb. 21, in the case of the State of Alabama v. Jarod Chase Cantrell, citing multiple instances of prosecutorial misconduct by the State.
The State was represented by Neal Cook, Winston County Assistant District Attorney, while Cantrell was defended by Stella J. Wennberg of Winfield.
Cantrell was arrested Feb. 27, 2017, at Double Springs Middle School, where he was employed as a physical education and technology teacher, assistant varsity football coach and junior high school basketball and baseball coach. Cantrell’s court docket states he was charged with rape 2nd degree x 3, sodomy 2nd degree x 3, school employee sex act violation x 3 and burglary 3rd degree x 3. Allegedly, Cantrell entered the bedroom of a 15-year-old girl through a window. A parent noticed Cantrell’s truck and alerted police to his vehicle.
Prior to the trial and in the absence of the jury, an order was granted by Carter on behalf of the defendant’s attorney to exclude the use of the word “rape” except in wording used to describe actual filed charges and during opening statements and closing arguments. This also meant the word “rape” was not to be used in witness statements.
Also before the trial, a motion was granted to suppress, “as evidence any and all confessions, statements or admissions” made by Cantrell during and immediately after his arrest in 2017. This motion was entered because no evidence was presented revealing the interrogator explaining Miranda rights after Cantrell specifically requested they be explained. Therefore, the prior inconsistent statements would not have been admissible.
Once the trial began, the State called Officer Tim Hale to the witness stand. Testimony given from Hale included the word “rape,” and the defendant objected to this, referring to the pre-trial order. The State’s response was only, “some of his witnesses” had been instructed to refrain from using the word “rape,” according to Carter’s order. Instructions were then given to the jury to cure any prejudice from having the word used. A court document says, “the State’s response to the Defendant’s objection displayed an indifference toward following Court Orders.”
When the State was cross-examining Cantrell, the State questioned him about a prior statement, which was suppressed by the court order. The defense objected and moved for a mistrial. The State’s argument was the prosecutor was allowed to call into question prior inconsistent statements, according to case law. However, the Court believed a sidebar conference was in order for the State to ask permission first.
After these violations, the Court believed, according to Carter’s order, that since the suppressed statements were brought up in the presence of the jury and no instructions could have been given to the jury which would eliminate prejudice, the mistrial was granted.
The court document also states, “the violation of a Court Order which protects a Defendant’s constitutional rights is a very serious violation. The violation of this Court’s Order was premeditated by the State, as evidenced by the fact that the State had case law in hand in anticipation of an objection by the Defendant.”
The court document goes on to say, “The State’s actions greatly prejudiced the Defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial guaranteed by the United States Constitution. Due to the totality of the circumstances, the Defendant’s motion for mistrial was due to be granted...The possibility of a guilty person, charged with serious offenses, potentially escaping punishment weighs heavy on the conscience of the Court. But the possibility of an innocent person being convicted because the trial was not fair, is far worse.”
The State has a right to appeal this decision.
A statement sent to the Alabamian from the Winston County District Attorney’s Office reads, “Lawyers’ ethical rules severely limit public comments regarding a pending matter. Accordingly, we are prohibited from providing opinions or comments on the Court’s Order. The Office of the District Attorney will evaluate this ruling, moving forward as appropriate. In doing so, we will continue to protect the rights of Alabama crime victims.”
Wennberg also sent a comment: “My client was looking forward to having his name cleared regarding these allegations and moving on with his life. However, there is nothing more important to a criminal defendant than the right to a fair trial, and I will continue to do everything in my power to protect that right for Chase.”
* When someone is accused of a crime, it is merely an accusation until or unless proven guilty in a court of law.
See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.