Jury Hangs, Cohen Goes For Oblivion

by Bruce McEwen, February 18, 2010

When I first heard from a confidential source that Terry Cohen had overdosed on drugs, I was sworn to secrecy. But within the hour the defendant's overdose was as public as the moon.

As the crowd climbed the courthouse stairs to hear if the Laytonville man was

Terry Cohen

guilty of murder, a leather-lunged pedestrian out on State Street was yelling, “Hung Jury!”

The jury had hung.

And Cohen had hung himself, hung himself with an overdose of prescription drugs but had defied oblivion, if not his jury.

When the foreman had said the jury was divided, Judge Ron Brown asked if more time in deliberation would result in a verdict. Some of the jurors resolutely shook their heads no.

The news that the defendant had attempted suicide and was in ICU at Ukiah Valley Medical Center had been kept from the jury, but some of them knew something wasn't right. The defendant’s chair was empty at the defense table where Cohen's lawyer, Katherine Elliott, stood by herself.

Judge Brown again asked if further argument might help the jury reach a verdict. The foreman shrugged, “It might.”

“I’d hate not to try then,” Judge Brown said.

Brown invited the jury to take a short recess while he discussed Cohen's sudden unavailability. The judge said it was his understanding that the defendant, who'd been out on bail of half a million dollars, was in a coma, on a ventilator.

“So,” he said, “in terms of when he may be available…?” Judge Brown asked.

Ms. Elliott said she had no idea when or even if her client would be able to come back to court. She said he may not live, and even if he did, there would then be the possibility that he would be incompetent to participate in his own defense. She asked the court to suspend the proceedings until, and assuming Mr. Cohen survived, a hearing to determine his mental competency had been heard by the court.

Brown said the jury would be dismissed only if an undue hardship was found.

“There’s certain guidelines I’ll have to adhere to,” he said.

Deputy DA Scott McMenomey suggested putting the jury on hold. Elliott wanted time for her client to recover, completely.

Brown said he didn’t know enough yet about Cohen's condition to make a decision.

“At this point,” he said “I’m thinking to continue it, to place the jurors on call until I know what to advise them.”

Mr. McMenomey said he didn’t want Cohen's situation to have any impact on the jurors.

Ms. Elliott noted that she'd seen some of the jurors looking askance at Cohen's empty seat at the defense table.

Judge Brown called the jury back into the courtroom where he placed them on call. He said he would appreciate any further information Ms. Elliott may have this week regarding her client’s health.

As of Monday, Cohen was still in the hospital. Sean Jason Piper, the man Cohen's accused of shooting to death, remains dead.

* * *

“Probable cause” is the phrase popular with jailhouse lawyers everywhere, people who have been involved with the justice system so often they consider themselves qualified to give legal advice to other inmates. Incarcerated legal scholars often denounce the cops on any given bust as having had no probable cause to interfere with the defendant in the first place. Unsurprisingly, cops are more reviled in jail than out of jail. Jail's a place for a sympathetic audience, an audience that will give you the benefit of the doubt if you say your rights were violated even if you're on parole or probation and get caught in the act of whatever. The consensus in jail is that you have a right to go about your business, regardless of how illegal it is, and there are a great many lawyers on the outside who agree, it seems.

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