11.17.2007

Judge views taped evidence in dependent abuse case

Judge views taped evidence in dependent abuse case
11/17/2007

The case against a caregiver standing trial for a second time in connection with the 2002 death of a woman in Orick could once again come to rest on a single videotape — whether or not the tape is admitted as evidence at trial.

Joseph Pierre Rollin stands accused of dependent abuse, with the additional allegations that he proximately caused the death of the victim, 42-year-old Joi Henderson Wright, and that he inflicted great bodily injury on her.

The videotape viewed Thursday by Superior Court Judge Timothy Cissna was recorded in an Austin, Texas, police station on April 10, 2003, more than a year after Wright’s death, and contains almost four hours of discussion between Rollin and Chris Cook, then a senior investigator for the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office.

Deputy DA Ben McLaughlin filed a motion to admit most of the tape — all but the first 25 minutes, during which Rollin spoke openly about Wright’s death before he was advised of his constitutional rights to remain silent and speak with an attorney.

The entire statement was admitted during the first trial in 2004, when Rollin was convicted of the enhanced felony charge. But an appeal court found in December that the trial court erred in its admission of the non-Mirandized portion of the statement, and that the error may have affected the verdict.

Cissna must now decide whether any portion of the tape can be admitted, with attorneys presenting opposing motions about whether the Mirandized statement should be considered “tainted” by law enforcement’s initial failure to read Rollin his rights.

Wright, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, is believed to have died on or around March 19, 2002, in a condemned trailer in Orick.

Records on file at the Humboldt County Coroner’s Office indicate that at the time of her death she weighed only 60 pounds and was swathed in a soiled disposable diaper.

Stacks of motions filed by Rollin’s lead attorney, Barry Morris, suggest the defense plans to argue that the defendant did the best he could to care for Wright, but did not receive the assistance he needed from the county.

Rollin made comments to that effect during the taped interview, but it’s impossible to know whether the tape would ultimately help or hurt his defense.

While it contains no overt admission of responsibility for Wright’s death, the tape shows the defendant making a number of unsettling comments that could leave a negative impression on jurors.

To avoid exposing prospective jurors to details of the case that might not be admitted at trial, The Eureka Reporter is not publishing specific statements from the tape at this time.

Admissibility motions continued Friday with Cissna viewing the conclusion of the videotape, during which an Austin detective joined Cook and Rollin in the interview room, questioning the suspect aggressively for a few minutes until Rollin asked to speak with an attorney.

The interview ended abruptly there, but the conversation soon resumed — this time captured on Cook’s voice recorder as Rollin was being transported back to jail.

Rollin continued talking to Cook, who told the suspect two or three times that she could not talk to him unless he again waived his rights, which he agreed to do.

The story he told then differed substantially from his earlier statements, but Rollin persisted in his denial of responsibility for Wright’s death.

He appeared in court last week with his previously long hair cut short and his dark glasses replaced with clear reading glasses.

It remained unclear when opening arguments would begin. Cissna, apparently frustrated by the pace of proceedings, reminded the attorneys that they had told him the trial would end by Christmas.

“From my observation, the chance of that happening is absolutely zero,” Cissna said. “We haven’t even finished the first motion.”

Jury selection is expected to resume Nov. 26, after Thanksgiving, but two additional weeklong recesses are scheduled in December.

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