Steamboat Springs After a few witnesses Monday, attorneys prosecuting Routt County Sheriff Gary Wall with charges that he drove drunk nine months ago had a hard time establishing more than Wall's defense already admits.
The scheduled three-day trial began Monday with a lengthy jury selection and concluded early in the afternoon after the prosecution called four witnesses to the stand.
Wall's defense contends that - before getting into his car to drive home - the county's top law enforcement officer had only one glass of wine Oct. 27 at the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association's centennial celebration at Sidney Peak Ranch. Four witnesses called by the prosecution - one bartender and three who shared a dinner table with Wall - couldn't say they saw the sheriff drink more.
Bartender Rachael Shiebler said she sold Wall a glass of red wine toward the beginning of the celebration and did not sell him anything the rest of the night. Shiebler was not the only bartender at the event.
Ron Smith, Wall's lawyer, said in his opening statement that Wall also bought a glass for his wife, Jenny Wilson, and also poured her several glasses of wine during dinner. Ian Prichard, Heidi Thomsen and Lisa Douglas said there were bottles of red and white wine at the dinner table they shared with Wall, as well as brandy snifters for a toast, but they were not sure how much Wall drank.
"I'm not sure the exact amount," Prichard said. "I just know he was drinking (wine) socially like the rest of us."
Under questioning by Smith, Shiebler said she did not observe any signs of intoxication from Wall. Thomsen, also under questioning, said Wall appeared to be calm and relaxed at the dinner table, and that his speech was understandable and not slurred. Douglas said that in addition to red wine, she saw Wall with a glass of clear liquid in it, but she did not know what it was.
While returning home from the celebration, Wall was pulled over by the Colorado State Patrol at Walton Creek Road and U.S. Highway 40 for an alleged failure to dim his headlights. Troopers say they observed signs of intoxication from Wall, who subsequently refused to perform roadside sobriety tests or submit to any tests of his blood alcohol level. He was cited on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol, failure to dim and prohibited use of a weapon because he had a gun in his car and it is against the law to be in possession of a firearm while under the influence of alcohol.
In her opening statement, Anne Francis, one of the case's two special prosecutors from Eagle County, dismissed the notion that there was a conspiracy to frame Wall for driving under the influence, an idea the defense has alluded to in previous hearings.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a special case," Francis said. "This is a case that has been tried hundreds of times before in courtrooms across the nation. This is not about politics, conspiracies or misunderstandings. This is about a man who drove drunk."
In her questioning of potential jurors, Karen Romeo, the second prosecutor, asked whether any of them have ever needed a test to tell if someone is drunk. In another allusion to Wall's refusal to submit to tests of his blood alcohol level, Romeo asked jurors whether they could ever imagine a situation where they wouldn't press a "magic button" to prove their innocence.
In his opening arguments, Smith said that, except for failing to dim his headlights, Wall was driving "safely and prudently."
In his final questioning of jurors, Smith asked if any of them had ever had bloodshot eyes or stumbled or forgotten to turn off their bright headlights when they weren't drunk.
Selecting a jury proved difficult for a case involving the prominent and controversial sheriff. Seventy-five potential jurors packed the courtroom. Fifteen were dismissed for reasons such as being a potential witness in the case, prejudices toward alcohol, preconceived notions about the sheriff, and health problems. Most were dismissed only after they were questioned in the chambers of Senior Judge Cecil Wayne Williams along with Smith, Wall, Romeo and Francis.
"I'm going to get my jogging in today," Williams joked in the middle of the frequent entrances and exits from the courtroom.
Williams frequently made light of a jury selection that started at about 9 a.m. and didn't conclude until about 2 p.m., peppering the proceedings with stories from past cases and his military service.
"This is probably going to be the longest jury selection I've ever had," Williams said, "and I had a murder case. : I haven't had so much fun since my grandfather killed my pet calf."
Williams denied a request by the Steamboat Pilot & Today to allow still photography in the courtroom on three legal grounds that there was a reasonable likelihood that expanded media coverage would "interfere with the rights of the parties to a fair trial," "unduly detract from the solemnity, decorum and dignity of the court" and that it "would create adverse effects, which would be greater than those caused by traditional media coverage."