The Lincoln County prosecutor, a friendly man, shoved the photograph under the noses of anybody who wanted to look. The woman in the photograph, tall and blond, was locked on her target, her mouth pulled askew against the stock of her rifle. Smoke puffed out from the end of the barrel as she fired. Sandy Jones was the woman's name. She'd been charged with murder, and the reporters were scrambling for the story.
Something about a murder case fascinates as well as frightens me. If you lose, the state hauls your client off and locks him up in some dank hole for the rest of his life, or an anonymous state-sanctioned murderer pulls the lever and your client is burned to death in the electric chair or gasps and turns purple and foams at the mouth in the gas chamber. And what happens to the lawyer who defended the poor bastard? If he was worth a damn and cared, a part of him dies along with his client. He drowns in his nightmares. He thinks that if he'd been more competent, prepared better, or called one more witness, maybe he could have saved his client.
A small-time real estate developer named Wilfred Gerttula was dead -- shot cleanly through the chest. Not only that, the prosecutor had an eyewitness to the murder, the dead man's wife, Monica, who said she'd seen Sandy Jones murder her husband, shoot him point-blank with the gun in the photograph. She ought to know, she said. She took the photograph. Then Monica said this Jones woman drove off with her dying husband in her husband's own pickup. It had been a cold-blooded, premeditated killing.
Sandy Jones was thirty-nine years old at the time she was arrested. She hadn't lounged in a bed of roses. Out of high school she'd gone to work in a cannery sorting berries. After that she managed one of those small motels that brags with its flickering neon sign that it's "modern," which means it has running water, sometimes. Sandy saw to all of the maintenance, painted, fixed the leaking faucets, and filled in the chuckholes in the driveway. Earlier a drunk driver ran into her, injuring her back and ribs. She and Mike Sr. had had a stormy marriage. He drank. They separated. He quit drinking. They got together again. And during his comings and goings their two kids, Little Mike and Shawn, were seeded and born.
Big Mike, as the family called him to distinguish him from their young son, Mike Jr., was a broad, muscled man of average height with wavy red hair, a red beard, an outdoor face, and powerful arms. He'd been a fisherman in Alaska, but that was before he'd been hurt working in the woods. After that, to feed his family he fished for salmon in the Siletz River and worked at whatever odd jobs he could find.
When, in the last days of July 1985, Sandy and Little Mike, by then fifteen, were both charged with murder, Mike Jones was like a lot of folks who face the crushing power of the state. He didn't know what to do; he had to find a lawyer to defend both his wife and son, and he had no money. The Joneses never had much. When their bills weren't paid, the phone company shut their phone off, and sometimes the power company shut off the electricity. They lived on a twenty-nine-acre swamp-bottom farm in a rickety, leaky-roofed house that was little more than a shack with a porch. The boundaries of their small, severely overgrazed pasture were marked by a dilapidated fence, the rotted posts leaning, the wire sagging. Derelict car bodies, rusted and in parts, were strewn here and there along with an assortment of other junk and a couple of outbuildings, one of which served as a barn for the kids' pony and the milk cow, and the other as a well house. The bank's mortgage was attached to the place like a cop's chokehold on a suspect.
The dead man, Wilfred Gerttula -- in his fifties, tough, grizzled, and humorless -- had insisted that the road that cut through the Jones property was a public road. Little more than a trail, it crowded within six feet of the corner of the Joneses' bedroom and then meandered steeply up a densely forested mountain through fern and heavy undergrowth to some granite outcroppings the Native Americans called Medicine Rock. After that, the trail snaked through the wet Oregon jungle to the top of the mountain and past a wire gate that marked the Joneses' farthest boundary. There a person could look down the steep canyon side to the river a couple hundred feet below. Beyond the Joneses' gate, the trail puttered along to other lands and eventually led to what Gerttula claimed was his subdivision.
"That's a county road," Gerttula proclaimed. "Always has been. And that woman won't let me or my buyers come through. Stops us cold ever' time." The good old boys of Lincoln County had had some experience with the Jones woman before. She was a troublemaker all right.
But Sandy Jones made her own speech. "The county and nobody else has ever had any right to cross our land. He says he has a subdivision up there? I can show you it was illegally established. Besides, a public road on that unstable ground would give way in the rainy season. It'd be dangerous." Beyond that, the Indians, with whom she held continual counsel, claimed that Medicine Rock was a sacred Indian burial ground. And Sandy Jones was one who was willing to fight for the rights of her Indian friends. "This is America," she declared, "and the good old boys in Lincoln County are not going to make us give up what rightfully belongs to us." Sandy herself was one-eighth Sioux.
There'd been lawsuits brought by Gerttula against the Joneses over the road and countersuits by Sandy Jones. Not satisfied with suing the Gerttulas, she sued the judges and the prosecuting attorney himself. Her first half-dozen attorneys dropped her, mostly because she couldn't pay, but she blindly forged on representing herself.
After the shooting on that muggy July day in 1985, and in panic, Sandy Jones had driven the Gerttula pickup down the mountain to get help for Gerttula, who was doubled up in the seat next to her. He was dead when she parked the truck at the neighbor's house below and ran in to call 911. That had ended the argument between Sandy Jones and Wilfred Gerttula.
It's true I'd often said that a trial lawyer without a good murder case isn't a real trial lawyer. Those who represent large corporations and like to stay sprayed in the perfumed mist of corporate dollars, who won't get down in the pits and get bloodied in the wars where human beings are at stake, are not real trial lawyers. If a trial lawyer won't take on a murder case because he doesn't want to get his hands dirty or because there isn't any money in it, the system fails. It not only fails the accused, it fails the rest of us. Someday when some fair-haired prosecutor with the governor's chair glowing in his mind's eye decides to charge one of us or one of our kids with a crime -- well, that hated, scorned, and damned of the legal profession, the trial lawyer, better be around to see that we get a fair trial, and that if we're innocent, we walk out the courtroom free.
One day in November 1985, I got a letter from a woman named Carol Van Strum. She and her husband were waging their own lonesome battle with the Forest Service. She wrote me that a citizen in Lincoln County, Oregon, had been charged with murder and that the woman's husband, a man named Mike Jones, whom she'd never met, had driven two hours in the cold of night to ask her for help. He had a small girl with him, his daughter, Shawn, about ten. The child was sick with the flu, and the woman put the child to bed while she talked with him. Why Jones had sought her help she didn't know. But from what he told her she thought something was fishy. The cops were holding the man's wife in isolation. The cops had their excuses. Van Strum wrote:
The only person allowed to visit her other than her attorney was her Native American Church minister. Approximately a month before, the minister himself was arrested for blocking the road on the Jones property, booked and released. The police claimed he was infected with hepatitis A. After that even he was barred from visiting Sandy and she's been kept in isolation for four months on the excuse that she's been exposed to the disease. She's received neither medical attention nor blood tests to establish the presence of the hepatitis antibodies. None of the jail staff or police officers involved in the minister's arrest have been similarly quarantined.
When Mike Jones asked the Van Strum woman for help, the only help she could think of was to write to me.
"That's a bunch of bullshit," I said to Eddie Moriarity, my partner of many years. I slammed the letter down. "If you put everybody in isolation who's been exposed to hepatitis, the whole world would have to be cooped up."
After a couple of calls, Eddie reported back. "It's true: the Jones woman's been in jail since July. Four months! The chief judge assigned a guy named Gardner to hear the case. Gardner won't let her even touch her kids."
"They're twisting her for a guilty plea," I said. I'd been defending murder cases for more than three decades, and if I'd learned one thing it was that trials do not seek the truth, nor are they always intended to deliver justice. Trials are wars -- wars that are won more than 90 percent of the time by the state.
"There's not one murder case here, there's two," Eddie said. "The Joneses' fifteen-year-old boy is charged with murder in the juvenile court. The kid was up there when Gerttula was shot. Shawn, the little girl, is cryin' for her mom. Her mom can't make bail. No collateral. Even their chicken house is mortgaged."
I see it in nearly every case. Innocent or not, hold them long enough in some miserable jail, frighten them enough, make them desperate enough, and the state wouldn't have to prove its case. And you have to remember: some charged with murder are innocent. They're usually poor and usually helpless to do much in defense of themselves. Under our Constitution, every person charged with a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In truth, most people charged with a crime are presumed guilty even by the jurors who hear their cases.
"How come they charged the kid in juvenile court?" I asked. "Most prosecutors would have charged him as an adult. These must be good guys."
"Oregon law required 'em to file the case in juvenile court," Eddie said. "But the legislature passed a new juvenile law that became effective on October 10. Ulys Stapleton, the DA, threatened Michele Longo -- she's Sandy Jones's court-appointed lawyer -- that if the kid didn't turn himself in fast, Stapleton would charge him as an adult. Boy came in on his own a few days after the shooting. But before he came in, Stapleton threatened Longo he was going to send out a tactical team to take the kid out. Jesus! Threatening a tactical team to take out a fifteen-year-old!" He shook his head; the Irish smile vanished. "They have the smokin' gun and the eyewitness," Moriarity said. "Easy case to prove. Take about ten minutes. Why those tactics?"
"Maybe there's something wrong with the state's case, or maybe they're just used to those brownshirt tactics up there."
"Maybe," Eddie said.
"Maybe we'd better go see what's going on in Lincoln County," I said.
Copyright © 2003 by G. L. Spence and Lanelle P. Spence Living Trust, dated November 8, 1999.
Day by Day Through a Shocking Murder Trial with Gerry Spence
The Smoking Gun
Day by Day Through a Shocking Murder Trial with Gerry Spence
When Sandy Jones and her teenage son were accused of murdering a real estate developer on their hardscrabble Oregon farm, the prosecution had an eyewitness to the shooting and a photograph of Sandy holding a smoking rifle. County officials kept Sandy in jail while they awaited the trial, despite ballistic evidence that strongly suggested she hadn't fired the fatal shot. The case erupted into an epic struggle between Sandy -- who was poor, different, and a woman -- and the "good old boys" of Lincoln County, Oregon, who held all the power.
Though the Joneses' guilt seemed eminently clear to the county and the prosecution, Gerry Spence, renowned for his work on the cases of Karen Silkwood and Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, took the case pro bono and the courtroom battle exploded into three years of intensely moving jury trials, recounted here from the record of the case. The Smoking Gun follows Gerry Spence through his passionate arguments with two different judges and two different prosecutorial teams, his exacting jury selection, his expert questioning of the witnesses, and his incredible rapport with the jury as he fights for the rights of Sandy and her son.
With a superb sense of drama and an intimate knowledge of the court system, Spence highlights the pitfalls that every defendant faces, making The Smoking Gun extremely relevant today, when our rights are being eroded and when the average American, even if innocent, is hard-pressed to obtain a fair trial.