EVERETT — An off-hand comment from a bailiff led the state Court of Appeals to reverse a child rape conviction for a Snohomish man accused of repeatedly abusing a 7-year-old girl.
Joseph Hall, 39, was charged in Snohomish County Superior Court in March 2019 with two counts of first-degree child rape and two counts of first-degree child molestation. The girl and her mother, both of Snohomish County, each took the stand and testified in a trial later that year.
The jury deliberated for eight days before returning a guilty verdict on the rape charges. They were deadlocked on the molestation charges. Hall was sentenced in January 2020 to 13⅓ years behind bars.
Over two years later, the state Court of Appeals ordered Hall’s convictions be reversed and the case be remanded, because a bailiff said things to the jury that potentially swayed the verdict.
When the case went to trial in 2019, the bailiff for Superior Court Judge Janice Ellis reportedly made comments to jurors as they deliberated. On the eighth day of deliberations, the jury asked if a juror could be dismissed.
“The juror stated she was not ill and just wanted to leave,” the bailiff told the court, “and they asked me if they could use the alternate. I told them that if they did that, they’d have to start all over and that generally that’s not what the alternate is for, but they told me to ask it anyway.”
The defense attorney and deputy prosecutor were called into court to meet with the judge and discuss the question. When the lawyers arrived, they were told the court had gotten a second question from the jury.
“We have a verdict on 1 and 2,” the jury wrote. “Can we leave 3 and 4 blank or hung?”
Then-defense attorney Cassandra Lopez-Shaw, who was elected judge in 2020 and died in March, filed a motion for a mistrial based on juror misconduct by the bailiff. Judge Ellis denied the motion.
The judge called the jury into the courtroom and directed them to deliver their verdict on the rape charges, and that a mistrial should be declared on the other counts.
Lopez-Shaw filed a motion for a new trial based on misconduct by the bailiff. Judge Ellis denied the motion.
“The bailiff’s post-trial communications with the jurors were demonstrably improper and are the archetype of a statement designed to hasten the jury’s verdict,” Lopez-Shaw wrote in the motion.
Judge Ellis denied the motion.
The judge declined to comment on the ruling this week when reached by a Daily Herald reporter.
The decision means Hall faces another trial. The case is scheduled to go in front of another jury in October.
This week, the girl’s mother told The Herald she had a panic attack when she was told about the appeal and possibility of a new trial. She said she felt disappointed in the criminal justice system. Another trial would mean the woman and her daughter may have to take the witness stand again, when they thought this chapter was over.
“The first time around was so traumatic and so hard,” she said. “Having to relive that would be terrifying. Having to watch my little girl go through that all over again would be terrifying. We’ve moved on with our lives. We’ve healed, we’ve done our counseling.”
Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell said he has never seen the Court of Appeals reverse a sentence based on a bailiff’s comments in his 20-some years working in the courthouse.
“It’s highly unusual,” he told The Herald, “and it’s obviously devastating for the family and the victim. We anticipate forging ahead and retrying the case if it comes to that.”
The state Court of Appeals released its 12-page opinion in late May.
“After 8 days of deliberations,” the opinion reads, “a mere 20 minutes elapsed between the jury being informed that if juror 4 were excused, they would have to start all over and the jury reaching a verdict. … It is at least possible that the bailiff’s comments resulted in juror 4 being pressured to reach a verdict.”
Court records show Hall had no prior felony convictions. As of this week, he remained incarcerated at the state prison in Shelton, awaiting a second trial.