May 19—A Thomasville woman convicted in March on charges stemming from the Jan. 6, 2021, riot and storming of the U.S. Capitol deserves a new trial because at least one of the jurors did not consider the defendants innocent until proven guilty, a defense attorney argues in a new court filing.
Laura Lee Steele, 54, a former High Point Police Department officer, was convicted March 20 along with several other members of the right-wing Oath Keepers militia group on multiple federal charges, including several felonies. Her attorney, Peter Cooper, filed a preliminary request for a new trial on April 7 but said at that time he was not yet prepared to state the grounds for a new trial.
In a new filing on Wednesday, Cooper based his call for a new trial on an interview of a juror by a reporter for the news site Politico.
The reporter contacted Cooper on March 28 for comment and subsequently provided Cooper with a recording of the interview, which Cooper contends shows that the juror improperly put the burden on the defendants to prove that they were innocent.
However, the juror’s phrasing in the transcript provided by Cooper does not necessarily support Cooper’s contention.
Judge Amit Mehta’s instructions to the jury included a routine admonition that defendants are innocent until proven guilty: “The law does not require the defendant to prove his or her innocence or to produce any evidence at all.”
The Politico interviewer asked the juror, “At what point had you made up your mind about most of … (the charges)?
The juror replied: “You really couldn’t until you heard the defense put on a case, if they put on a case. You needed to hear the other side of it.”
Cooper argues in his filing that this quote shows that this juror put the burden of proof on the defense instead of on the prosecution.
However, further in the interview the juror explained at length how she understood the trial process to work:
“The prosecution’s job is to prove that a crime was committed, to prove that these defendants are guilty. It is not the defendant or the defense’s job to prove that they’re innocent. The prosecutor has to tell you why they’re in trial, why were they charged: What is their case? In a case like this, they had probably at least 600 pieces of evidence like I was saying, videos, still pictures, texts, tweets, chats, Facebook, I mean there was so much information; a list of phone calls, the log of all the phone calls you made over a day. I mean they had all this stuff and they’re trying to build as strong a case as possible.”
And after that explanation of the extensive case that the prosecutors presented, the juror said, “So of course, as it’s building and building and building and building, you think, oh my God these people are guilty, but you don’t know what the other side of it (is).”
The question may be whether Mehta will read that as the juror properly being convinced beyond a reasonable doubt by the extensive prosecution case but saying she had been open to hearing an alternate explanation if the defendants had any.
No further court hearing has been scheduled in the case, and some of Steele’s codefendants have been given until late May to submit their own court filings.