More than two years after a Humboldt County jury convicted him of 11 child molestation charges, Timothy Floyd Littlefield is still waiting to learn his fate.
But word of what the future holds for Littlefield could come any day now, as the California First District Court of Appeals has heard oral arguments in his case, taken it under submission and is now expected to issue a ruling in the coming weeks.
Littlefield was facing a total of eight life sentences as he stood before Humboldt County Superior Court Judge John Feeney in May of 2014, when the judge granted a defense motion seeking a mistrial in the case due to juror misconduct.
Russell Clanton, Littlefield’s attorney, had provided the court with a sworn declaration from a juror in the case who said he felt the defense hadn’t proven Littlefield’s innocence during the trial. Because the foundation of our criminal justice system is built on the tenet that people do not need to prove their innocence, and are presumed innocent until proven guilty, Feeney declared a mistrial.
“In all my years as a lawyer, I have never seen anything like this,” Clanton said at the time. “It was a great day for justice.”
It was the second time Littlefield’s case had ended in a mistrial, after jurors deadlocked at 11-1 in favor of convicting him on all counts in 2012. After the second trial in September of 2013, jurors deliberated for just three hours before returning guilty verdicts on all 11 charges.
The California Attorney General’s Office appealed Feeney’s ruling of a mistrial in May 2014, and the case has been wallowing in the California Court of Appeals First District since. Attorneys in the case gave oral arguments last week, recording of which were obtained by the North Coast Journal
. The court has until early February to decide whether Feeney’s ruling stands, which would pave the way for a third trial in the case, or whether Feeney erred, in which case Littlefield’s convictions would remain.
The underlying facts of the case are horrible from all sides. Police arrested Littlefield in February 2009 on allegations of repeatedly molesting Jane Doe, who was his 8-year-old stepdaughter at the time of the alleged offenses. Prosecutors argued during both trials that Littlefield kept the girl in isolation and threatened her to keep quiet as he molested her in secret for more than a year. Clanton argued at the trials that Jane Doe, her mother and another witness concocted the allegations to get back at Littlefield for abusing his wife.
Littlefield appeared crushed at the jury verdict in September of 2013, when he collapsed onto counsel table, sobbing, as the court clerk rattled off the guilty verdicts to all counts. In the wake of the conviction, Clanton worked extensively to try to get the verdicts vacated, filing a number of motions, including one alleging that advocacy groups were texting witnesses in the case from the courtroom as the trial was proceeding. Feeney denied the motions until the topic of juror misconduct came up in May of 2014, when Clanton provided the court with a sworn declaration from a juror saying he didn't believe the defense had proven Littlefield’s innocence during the trial.
The question that’s currently before the appellate court justices is fairly straightforward, and has nothing to do with Littlefield’s guilt or innocence: Should Feeney have accepted the juror’s declaration as evidence?
California Evidence Code Section 1150 provides that when there’s a question as to the validity of a jury verdict, evidence showing a juror’s state of mind when voting in deliberations or “concerning the mental process” by which they came to a verdict is inadmissible. The idea behind the code section is that if something is going to set aside a jury verdict, it has to be something tangible, provable and subject to corroboration, not an after-the-fact statement from a juror impugning his or her own mental process or reasons for a verdict.
“We have noted that not all thoughts by all jurors at all times will be logical, or even rational, or, strictly speaking, correct. But such [thoughts] cannot impeach a unanimous verdict; a jury verdict is not so fragile,” reads a decision of the appellate court in the 2012 case of People v. Gonzalez.
In oral arguments before the appellate justices in Littlefield’s case on Nov. 3, all seemed to concede this point. But, in probing questions posed to the attorneys, the justices seemed to guide the discussion toward the question of whether, absent an objection from then-prosecuting District Attorney Paul Gallegos, Feeney was obligated to accept the juror’s declaration as evidence.
"The prosecution didn’t object to the declarations so the trial court wasn’t presented with the question of whether it should consider these declarations or not,” William Richard Such, the attorney representing Littlefield in the case, told the court. Further, Such argued that because Gallegos didn’t object to the declaration being presented as evidence, Clanton was never pressed to present other evidence supporting the declaration of a mistrial, so there may have been other evidence of juror misconduct that never came to light.
Based on their questions and comments, it seems clear the justices weren’t impressed with either Gallegos or Feeney’s handling of the motion for a mistrial in Littlefield’s case. One justice quipped in the oral arguments that the court expects state prosecutors to know the law.
“Or,” another justice chimes in, “he might have thought the judge would know the law of California well enough to say those declarations aren’t worth the paper they’re on.”
When issuing a ruling, the court has three basic options: It can uphold Feeney’s mistrial ruling, paving the way for a new trial; overturn Feeney’s ruling, upholding Littlefield’s convictions and paving the way for his sentencing; or it can overturn Feeney’s ruling but remand the motion for a new trial back to Feeney to see if Littlefield’s defense can present any additional evidence that a new trial is warranted.
Littlefield is currently free, having posted $500,000 bail, as he awaits the appellate court’s decision. It’s now been six years since Littlefield’s arrest and his alleged victim is now a teenager who’s had to testify against her ex-stepfather twice and is now facing the prospect of being called to do it a third time.