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Judge squelches defense attorney’s mentions of Salem witch trials, other events

By Mark Shenefelt - | Nov 26, 2021

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner

The 2nd District courthouse in Farmington is pictured on Monday, Nov. 1. 2021.

FARMINGTON — A defense attorney who sometimes refers to the Salem witch trials and the Spanish Inquisition in his closing arguments objects that Davis County prosecutors are trying to muzzle him heading into a murder trial.

Second District Judge David J. Williams recently signed an order proposed by prosecutors to prohibit attorneys in the murder trial of Michael Jameel Hines from talking about things not entered into evidence.

“Specifically, this includes but is not limited to references to historical events, cases where a jury convicted someone later found to have been innocent, or the Innocence Project,” said the motion by Benjamin Willoughby, a deputy Davis County attorney.

Attorney Rudy Bautista, representing Hines, has gone beyond those bounds in three recent local jury trials, Willoughby said. In closing arguments in those cases, Bautista “referenced the Salem witch trials, McCarthyism, the Spanish Inquisition, and the fact that he himself was a Marine,” Willoughby said. In other cases Bautista has mentioned cases in which juries have convicted a defendant later found to be innocent.

Bautista said in an interview Wednesday that it’s “inappropriate to try to limit a defense attorney’s ability to defend his client and ensure that his constitutional rights are upheld.”

“It is always related to the evidence,” Bautista said. “Juries have acquitted my clients on the totality of the evidence, or the state has not met the burden of proof or they have charged the wrong person.”

He said the motion “is kind of a compliment to me in a way. It’s akin to saying ‘the defense is winning because they’re cheating.'”

He also defended his references to historical events and “real life” experiences. “We should learn from our history,” he said. “None of that is theatrics.”

People are prone to rush to judgment on jury verdicts that they might disagree with, such as Kyle Rittenhouse being acquitted in the Kenosha, Wisconsin, shootings, Bautista said. “We are all forgetting it is a jury of our peers that hears all the evidence,” he said.

He said in his 22 years of practice he has seen that juries “analyze evidence any way they want to. We try to guide them, but they see right through attorneys if they’re playing games.”

Willoughby said Wednesday that Bautista’s approach is “unusual,” but he declined to comment further. In his motion, Willoughby cited various court rulings that came down against attorneys’ improper references to unrelated criminal or civil cases.

In the Hines case, any reference to DNA exonerations in other cases would improperly serve to mislead a jury and “inflame passion or prejudice” among jurors, the prosecutor’s motion said, citing a Utah Supreme Court ruling on a dispute over the content of closing arguments.

Bautista said he intends to argue the closing arguments issue further between now and the Hines trial, which is set to begin March 28.

Charging documents said Hines allegedly fought with Kannon Beesley, 18, for a large bag of marijuana and Beesley was shot. The incident happened March 12, 2020, in Layton.

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