Date: Thursday, 19 April 2018
URBANA — A Champaign County judge Wednesday declared a mistrial for an Urbana man accused of trying to get teen girls in his car because the state failed to turn over squad car videos related to his arrest.
Judge Heidi Ladd agreed with Desit Tecle's attorney that the state had violated the discovery process — the exchange of evidence between attorneys — but found the prosecutor's omission was not intentional, setting the stage for a retrial.
Tecle, 23, who lives on Rainbow View Drive with several relatives, was charged in November with child abduction after he allegedly approached two different girls who were both 13 on Nov. 1 as they walked near Urbana Middle School and offered them rides. Neither girl got in the car and neither was physically harmed.
Laying out the facts of how Tecle approached the girls and what he said to them, Assistant State's Attorney Tim Sullivan told the jury the evidence supported a guilty verdict on child abduction charges.
Defense attorney Evan Bruno said evidence would show that Tecle, an immigrant from Eritrea in East Africa who's been in the country lawfully since 2014, was trying to be kind to the girls and had no criminal intent in speaking to them. He said Tecle was at the middle school to take his nephew to basketball practice.
Tecle had a court-appointed translator to help him understand what was being said during trial.
"Stranger danger is not a thing in Eritrea. No one ever told Desit to be afraid of strangers. They probably should have. This is a case about imagination and fear," Bruno told the jury in opening statements.
Both girls, now 14, testified Tuesday that Tecle approached them at different times.
One girl was walking north on Vine Street about 4:30 p.m. headed to her piano lesson downtown, when a man she identified as Tecle pulled across the crosswalk on Oregon with his car, blocking her ability to cross Vine.
"He asked me if I was OK because I looked upset and did I need a ride," the teen testified.
She told him no but she described him as becoming "more aggressive" and saying, "Baby, you need a ride. I'll give you a ride."
The girl said she called her mother, who called the police. She said Tecle called her "baby" about five to 10 times and asked her to get in the car "about 10 times."
She said he seemed to have no trouble understanding her and did not appear confused.
The other girl said she left basketball practice at the middle school about 6 p.m., walked to the nearby gas station on Vine and was walking back to school to wait for her dad to pick her up. As she neared the school, she said Tecle put his passenger window down and asked her if she was okay and did she need a ride home. She told him no at least three times, she said, then went back into the school.
She told her father what happened, adding that she thought she saw something in his hand that she believed was a knife. Her father relayed that to police and Officer Eric Ruff, who also took the earlier report from the other girl, arrived at the school.
Ruff testified Tuesday that he ordered Tecle out of his car at gunpoint, had him put his hands over his head and walk to the back of the car. He said Tecle complied and had no difficulty understanding.
Under cross-examination by Bruno, Ruff said he believed that his squad car video was on when he was arresting Tecle, a revelation that caused Bruno and Sullivan to approach the judge.
Ladd sent the jury out and a lengthy exchange followed about Sullivan not sending Bruno all the video that existed from the arrest as Bruno had requested in December.
Sullivan told the judge he was unaware of squad car video. Typically, he said a police officer notes in his written report if there is video and a non-attorney in his office asks the police department's evidence technician to produce it.
"If it exists, it's sent to the state's attorney's office," he said.
State’s Attorney’s Julia Rietz said Sullivan requested all video from Urbana police and did not receive it.
Ladd sent the jury home, ordered Sullivan to get the video and hand it over to Bruno early Wednesday morning to review it. When the lawyers came back before Ladd at 10:30 a.m., Bruno had a long list of items he found on the video that would have caused him to defend Tecle differently. And he noted that the girls and their parents had already testified, so his opportunity to cross-examine them on things he learned by watching the video was gone. "My strategy may have been totally different knowing Ruff's report is misleading on Desit understanding his rights," Bruno argued, referring to his client's limited understanding of English. Sullivan countered that Bruno could have filed a motion to suppress evidence stemming from the arrest, but did not; that Bruno could continue to cross-examine Ruff about the details of the arrest; and that there was little on the approximately 100 minutes of video that would exonerate Tecle.
Bruno took issue with that.
"I don't tell the prosecutor where to find inculpatory evidence and don't expect him to point out exculpatory evidence. That's my job and why I requested the videos in December," Bruno said.
Ladd agreed that Bruno should have had more time to review the videos on his own and with his client.
"To ask him to sift through 90 to 110 minutes of video and be prepared to question the witness is unfair and no effective defense attorney could do so given the extent of material (produced late)," Ladd said.
"This is unfortunate but preventable," she said of the mistrial.
After the hearing, an exasperated Bruno said: "The goal was to get a not guilty and this isn't the way we wanted the trial to end. He's been unemployable since Nov. 1 as an accused child abductor. His schooling was ended. He was expelled from his CDL (commercial driver's license) training."
Ladd continued the case until May 22.