Carson City Justice court was the first in Nevada to conduct a jury trial in a domestic battery case under the new Supreme Court ruling saying defendants accused of that crime are entitled to a jury.
The high court made that ruling in September, concluding that with the most recent legislative additions to potential penalties, domestic battery was now elevated to a “serious” offense instead of a “petty” offense that doesn’t warrant a jury trial.
A key argument centered around the fact that someone convicted of domestic battery loses their 2nd Amendment rights.
Justice of the Peace Kristin Luis presided over the trial held in November. It lasted a day and a half and, after 40 minutes of deliberation, jurors acquitted the defendant of the charge.
“Whether to the judge or to a jury, I think there are challenges in a battery case that are difficult to prove,” she said. “As a former prosecutor, I know that first hand.”
Maxine Cortes, court administrator to the Carson Justice Courts, said that, without a photo of a black eye or some other physical damage, it’s very difficult to prove what happened. And both said the victims often change their mind and don’t want to prosecute the defendant after a few days.
Ironically, the second jury trial under the new rule was conducted just a few days later in Douglas County and, once again, the defendant was acquitted.
Luis and Cortes said quite a few defendants charged with domestic battery are taking advantage of the new rule. The two Carson justice of the peaces each have jury trials set Thursdays and Fridays out into May at this point.
Luis and fellow JP Tom Armstrong have a couple of advantages over many other jurisdictions in Nevada. Both are experienced lawyers who have tried numerous cases before a jury. In particularly rural jurisdictions, justice of the peaces aren’t required to be lawyers and often those lay-judges have no experience with jury trials. But she conceded that, “it’s different doing it as an advocate.”
Luis said during that first trial, they had employees from Storey County attend and observe to see how the system works.
They said they are also thankful for the help they are receiving from the district court judges and staff to make the new rules work.
The other advantage Carson has is that they can use the district court’s jury case management system. Other jurisdictions are struggling with that or having to purchase and install a separate jury management system for the JP courts.
To better enable JP jury trials, Cortes said a jury box is being installed in the third courtroom on the third floor of the courthouse. That courtroom is often used by specialty court judges and, until now, hasn’t really needed a jury box.