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Kidnapping trial ends in acquittal

Published: Saturday, Sept. 26 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

David James Bell, center, reacts with his attorneys Roger Kraft and Susanne Gustin after being acquitted of all charges in 3rd District Court.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Nearly the entire courtroom audience burst into tears Friday when a jury pronounced David James Bell "not guilty" of child kidnapping and burglary.

Some were jubilant Bell supporters who had claimed all along that he was being singled out for prosecution on flimsy charges because he is gay.

But relatives of the two preschoolers involved in the case wept bitterly and left the courtroom without saying a word as theywiped their tears and helped other distraught family members walk outside.

Lulu Latu, the mother of one of the children in the case, continued sobbing in the hallway outside the courtroom and while she got into the elevator to leave. Angry comments could be heard as some courtroom observers left — some snapping that the trial's outcome would have been different if the children had been white. The families involved are Pacific Islanders; Bell is Caucasian.

After the verdict was announced, Bell went into a back room, seeking to confer with jurors. He emerged later flanked by two defense attorneys who held his arms aloft like a triumphant athlete as a sizeable crowd in the 3rd District courthouse hallway cheered and clapped.

"For once, in the very corrupt system that I found it, justice has been served," Bell, 31, said.

Roger Kraft, one of Bell's defense attorneys, said a plea bargain had previously been offered that would have required some type of guilty plea by Bell with recommendation for no prison time. But Kraft said Bell said they wanted to fight the charges because he is innocent.

"I wasn't willing to cop to something I didn't do," Bell declared, as the crowd cheered repeatedly.

Defense attorney Susanne Gustin said jurors she spoke to after the trial were "disgusted and irritated" that the charges had even been brought by the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office, and the jurors were displeased by the estimated $100,000 cost of the trial. "They said they were angry," Gustin stated.

Bell said his sexual orientation may have been a factor in the case, but there was more to it.

The unusual case has, from the beginning, involved allegations of prejudice on both sides and brutal assaults on Bell and his partner, Dan Fair, that have not been prosecuted. However, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office told the Deseret News after the verdict Friday that the assault allegations will be reviewed again and assault charges considered.

Bell's defense team successfully argued that Bell never kidnapped the children but had simply taken in two youngsters, ages 4 and 2, on July 4, 2008, at his South Salt Lake home because they were wandering around in the early-morning hours while their parents drank and partied.

If he had been convicted, he faced a minimum sentence of 31 years in prison and could have ended up behind bars for life. The jury deliberated for about 21/2 hours Friday before finding him not guilty of two counts of first-degree felony child kidnapping and one count of second-degree felony burglary.

Prosecutors claimed Bell had sneaked into his neighbor's house, after joining them for part of an all-night party that was taking place outside, and took the two youngsters to his house next door.

But defense attorneys called the theory preposterous. They argued the police work in the case was sloppy and that many of the prosecution witnesses lied under oath.

Defense attorneys contended that once the children were discovered by one of the adults at the party, many members there stormed over to Bell's house, broke down his door and severely beat him and his roommate.

Both District Attorney Lohra Miller and South Salt Lake prosecutors had declined to file any charges in connection with the beatings. Miller's spokeswoman Alicia Cook said there were "legal obstacles" while the kidnapping trial was pending that prevented prosecutors from filing charges.

"Those obstacles have now been removed," she said Friday after the verdict was reached.

Her office will now review "the whole situation" and determine whether charges are warranted in connection with the assault on Bell and Fair. "We'll take what evidence was presented at trial into account," Cook said.

Bell and Fair sustained several injuries on the day in question, and a medical expert concluded Bell suffered from a mild traumatic brain injury from the beating. Such injuries, she said, could result in someone appearing to be lucid in conversation, but confused as to events that occurred immediately before and after the beating.

Defense attorneys during the trial said that was crucial to the case, because Bell was shown on a police videotape giving a somewhat rambling and contradictory series of statements and responses to questions while being interviewed.

The four-day trial was a contentious affair, with many disputes between Bell's defense team and Judge Paul Maughan. The judge on Thursday publicly scolded Gustin, outside of the jury's hearing, for not complying with court orders to refrain from portraying Bell as an assault victim and appearing to prosecute the children's relatives.

Maughan told Gustin that the matter might be visited in another courtroom on another day, but the assault on Bell was irrelevant for this particular trial.

Prosecutor Tupakk Renteria told jurors to focus on Bell's behavior of taking the children without their parents' permission. "He had no authority to take those kids," he said.

However, Kraft said in closing arguments that the state's witnesses could not be believed because they often contradicted themselves or gave evasive answers to questions.

Kraft also argued that he and Gustin had avoided playing the "gay card" during the trial, but Kraft said this whole episode was ignited when Latu's short fuse was lit by her preconceived ideas about gay men when she found the children.

Renteria, however, took exception to the "gay card" comment and suggested that the defense might be playing a "Polynesian card" by characterizing the parents and other relatives at the party as drunkards who ignored their children and could not be believed.

Contributing: Pat Reavy

e-mail: lindat@desnews.com

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