EVERETT — When Alejandro Meza was convicted in October of first-degree manslaughter for killing a stranger on an Everett bus, he cried.
But on Wednesday, the 23-year-old Lake Stevens man sat stoically in Snohomish County Superior Court as a judge ordered a mistrial, granting him another opportunity.
Judge Richard Okrent agreed with Meza’s defense attorney that an accumulation of “errors” at trial by the deputy prosecutor in the case may have prejudiced the jury when it convicted the defendant.
Okrent said deputy prosecutor Adam Sturdivant “misled the jury” and violated Meza’s constitutional rights with several statements, including comments about Meza’s right to remain silent and a reference to the killing of Gene Peterson, 33, as an “execution.”
“The more errors we have, the more it accumulates and the more the bell is rung for the jury,” the judge said.
Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell said in an interview that his leadership team would review court documents to decide what to do next. He said there were a few options.
Prosecutors could just get ready for another trial at an unknown date. If that happens, Cornell said, his office would push to accelerate the process to get the case in front of a jury again.
They could ask Okrent to reconsider.
Or they could appeal Okrent’s decision to the state Court of Appeals.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do yet,” Cornell said.
He called the move for another trial at this point in the legal process “unusual.”
“This is not something that happens on a regular basis,” the prosecutor said.
Meza was charged with second-degree murder for killing Peterson on a Community Transit bus.
The defendant was going to work in Mukilteo on March 7 last year. He couldn’t drive because he had seizures.
On the bus, Meza got into a fight with Peterson, of Everett, who was riding with a friend. According to the defendant’s trial testimony, it started when Meza confronted Peterson about smoking drugs on the bus.
Meza testified this conversation went “not as planned.” He also claimed Peterson threatened to put him “to sleep.” Peterson did not threaten to use a weapon, Meza said in a police interview after the shooting.
Peterson punched him in the face, surveillance video showed. That footage was shown to jurors many times throughout the trial.
A fight ensued in the aisle. Meza landed several blows. Peterson grabbed the other man’s hood, blocking Meza’s vision.
The defendant felt a hand on his waist where he kept his gun. He thought it was Peterson’s hand. The security footage showed it was the hand of Peterson’s friend reaching in.
Within seconds, Meza racked the slide of his pistol and fired a shot into Peterson’s stomach. He told police the first shot was an accident.
The first 9 mm bullet sent Peterson to his knees, with his back to Meza. The defendant fired another shot into Peterson’s back and through his right lung and liver. That bullet was intentional, Meza reportedly told police.
After a weeklong trial in front of Judge Okrent, a jury of eight men and four women convicted Meza of the lesser charge of first-degree manslaughter. He had no prior criminal record.
“This is a very difficult case with a difficult set of facts and very difficult sets of interpretations,” Okrent said Wednesday.
‘Crossed the line’
In court filings last month, Meza’s defense attorney, Timothy Leary, pushed for a new trial, alleging prosecutorial misconduct.
Prosecutors “are not simply advocates; their statements, arguments and actions must be marked by fairness and a commitment to the protection of a defendant’s constitutional rights,” Leary wrote. “Jurors are naturally inclined to hold them in high regard and as such, their conduct must be beyond reproach.”
The attorney argued that Sturdivant, the deputy prosecutor, fell short, claiming his actions deprived Meza of a fair trial.
Specifically, Leary referred to several instances when, he claimed, prosecutors commented on Meza’s exercise of his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, misstated the burden of proof and appealed to the “passions of the jury.”
In one case, Sturdivant appeared to argue Meza withheld information from investigators, which the defendant has the right to do. In a response this month, Sturdivant called his actions “appropriate.”
Meza’s defense called for a mistrial in the October trial. Okrent agreed Sturdivant’s comments on Meza’s right to remain silent were a problem, but the judge denied the motion for a mistrial. He instructed jurors to ignore Sturdivant’s statement.
Leary alleged, however, that Sturdivant repeatedly made the same improper argument later in the trial, including in his closing arguments.
On Wednesday, Okrent said the deputy prosecutor’s comments “tarnished the defendant’s credibility unfairly.”
The defense attorney also pointed to a comment in the closing statement as evidence of misconduct: “There is no benefit of the doubt, ladies and gentlemen, when it comes to the amount of force that you apply, right?” Defendants are afforded the presumption of innocence. It is the job of prosecutors to prove a defendant committed a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
Leary again pushed for a mistrial after that comment. But Okrent again denied the request, instead telling jurors to ignore the remark. Sturdivant wrote in court papers that he was arguing whether Meza’s actions were “justified or heavy handed.” He noted he was not disputing that it was his burden to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Okrent said instructions for jurors to ignore statements can only do so much when there are numerous “improper statements.”
“There is a point of no return,” the judge said.
Lastly, Leary noted the deputy prosecutor likened Meza’s actions to an “execution.” This could indicate premeditation, but Meza was not charged with premeditated murder. He was charged with second-degree murder. In the March 2021 charging papers, Sturdivant wrote that Meza was alleged to have “essentially executed a stranger on a public bus.”
In his response, Sturdivant argued Meza had an opportunity to change his mind between his first and second shot and that the positioning, with Peterson facing away, was similar to an execution. Okrent said this comment, on top of the others, “crossed the line.”
The deputy prosecutor in court papers called Leary’s allegations “unsubstantiated and unsupported by any legal authority.”
Meza “received a fair trial in front of a jury of his peers,” Sturdivant added.
The judge disagreed.
“We have a doctrine in Washington state that talks about accumulation of prosecutorial misconduct errors,” he said. “That when the total amount of errors are such that the other evidence can’t overwhelm it, essentially you have a major problem. And that’s what happened here.”
After Okrent handed down his decision, Meza met with his supporters in the hallway, hugging them in relief.
Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; email@example.com. Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.
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