Lawyers overcome video evidence, jury agrees with county in lawsuit

Friday, December 02, 2016

In a case of humans versus machines, the humans prevailed. The result was a woman who sued Hennepin County seeking a large damage award went away empty-handed.

A Hennepin County jury took less than 45 minutes to return the verdict Nov. 18, finding that the plaintiff, Heather Jones, had not proven assault, battery, excessive force or sexual harassment and, therefore, would receive no money from Hennepin County. It was a happy outcome for Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Becca Holschuh, who was trying her first jury trial.

Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Jim Keeler, who acted as co-counsel, has vast trial experience from his years in juvenile and adult prosecution. He praised the job Holschuh did, as well as the great team of paralegal Carrie Wessels, investigator Deb Bernard and trial media guru Carol Patton.

The case involved the actions of Hennepin County security guard, Elijah Hannah, in dealing with Jones at the Century Plaza building on Seventh Street on June 19, 2014. That day, Jones went to the building to meet with a caseworker. After the meeting, Jones went to the second floor where she created a disturbance at the public phone bank.

Hannah approached her and asked her to lower her voice. She responded by calling Hannah an expletive, so he began escorting her out of the building. He allowed her to obtain parking validation. As they were nearing the door, she took out a cigarette and Hannah told her that smoking was prohibited indoors. When she attempted to light the cigarette anyway, he put his hand on hers to prevent it. She then hit him on the head. He took her down to the floor and held her there until a sheriff’s deputy arrived and arrested her, Keeler said.

Jones’ version was that not only did she not hit him, and therefore there was no reason for him to take her down, but that she was about to go out the door when he dragged her back in and knocked her down, all in retaliation for refusing his sexual advances.

And the machine, in this case the building’s security video, was not guaranteed to help the county’s case, Holschuh said. First, it showed Jones’ hand in the air near Hannah’s head but it did not show the moment of impact.

“And take down videos never look good,” she said.

So Holschuh and Keeler brought in a use-of-force expert who went frame by frame, explaining what Hannah was doing, and why, and concluding that everything he did was proper. Then they brought in a video expert who explained that movies are shot at 60 frames per second, but the security video was only 10 frames per second, Holschuh said. As a result, there are gaps of a tenth of a second, plenty of time for Jones’ hand to hit Hannah’s head without the video showing the strike.

“What was critical was, did she strike him,” Keeler said. “We had a Hennepin employee who was going out for a smoke. She was right behind them and she testified that she saw her strike him and ‘I heard the skin-on-skin contact.’ “

Then, Holschuh and Keeler used a little technology of their own. Because of computer programs that the caseworkers log into when they are seeing their clients, and a different system for the security guard’s key card access, it was possible to build a large map for the jury showing exactly where everyone was at very precise times. That map showed the jury that during one time that Jones claimed Hannah was propositioning her, he was actually on the other side of the building, Holschuh said. And Bernard, during her investigation, discovered an Oregon fraud conviction against Jones, which further damaged her credibility, Keeler said.

“We were representing a good guy who was horrified by the plaintiff’s allegations,” Holschuh said. “The (county) commissioners were also happy we could demonstrate our support for county employees by trying the case.”