Jury finds woman ‘not guilty,’ then ‘guilty’
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
October 22, 2009 · Updated 8:27 AM
Langley resident Patricia Sylvester went on an emotional roller coaster ride in Island County Superior Court Monday.
Sylvester, 49, was on trial last week on a vehicular assault charge in connection with a head-on collision on Cultus Bay Road Oct. 3, 2008, that left a man with a collapsed lung and three fractured ribs.
A run-of-the-mill trial turned into something unusual Monday morning. Sylvester rushed to court at about 11 a.m. after the 12-member jury reported that they had reached a verdict. She was crying and visibly shaking as she waited for the jury to file in with their decision.
Finally, Judge Alan Hancock read the verdict: “not guilty.” Sylvester and her supporters in the audience cried tears of joy, but the relief was short lived.
Hancock polled the jury, as Sylvester’s attorney Charles Hamilton had requested. The confusion started immediately when the first juror said she did not agree with the verdict.
Hancock sent the jury out of the courtroom. He discussed the problem with Hamilton and Deputy Prosecutor David Carman, who both seemed surprised at the turn of events.
Hancock ultimately decided to call the jury back in and explain that a verdict must be a unanimous decision by all members of the jury. He then sent them back to the jury room to continue deliberating.
At about 2:30 p.m., the jury again reported they had reached a verdict. This time, the jury found Sylvester guilty of vehicular assault, though it was the least serious of three “prongs” of the charge. The jury found that she wasn’t guilty of committing vehicular assault while intoxicated, which is the most serious version of the crime.
Carman admitted afterward that the confusion over the verdict was “at least unusual” and something he had never heard of before. Based on conversations with several jurors, he surmised that they misunderstood a jury instruction regarding the necessity of a unanimous decision. They thought that the jury must find the defendant “not guilty” if they don’t have a unanimous decision.
In fact, the jury is supposed to deliberate toward a unanimous verdict; if a verdict absolutely can’t be reached, then the judge can declare a mistrial and the prosecution may try the case again.
Carman said the jury sent questions to the judge Friday afternoon asking whether a verdict needs to be unanimous.
“The jury consistently have misunderstood the necessity of a unanimous verdict,” Hamilton said in court, clearly frustrated.
After the judge sent them back, the jury members “looked deeper into the evidence” and returned the guilty verdict, Carman said.
Sylvester will be sentenced at a hearing in November.
Detective Craig Cardinal with the Washington State Patrol investigated the accident on South Whidbey. According to his report, Sylvester was driving her 1996 Acura on Cultus Bay Road at about 9:20 p.m. when she braked to avoid a car stopped for the light at the intersection with Highway 525.
Sylvester lost control of her car and drove it into the opposing lane, striking an oncoming 1991 Subaru station wagon head-on. Michael Nichols, the driver of the Subaru, was seriously injured and transported to the hospital. Nichols’ dog was injured in the accident and had to be treated at a veterinary hospital.
Sylvester took the stand during the trial and denied that she was at fault. It was dark and raining when the accident occurred.
Cardinal wrote that Sylvester’s blood was drawn for testing three hours and 32 minutes after the accident. The results showed the presence of THC and alcohol in her blood, though the latter was below the legal limit.Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.