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BOE member acquitted in domestic-dispute case

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Clayton County Board of Education Member Trinia Garrett, and her boyfriend, Albert Stocken, were acquitted of charges ranging from simple assault, to simple battery/family violence, to criminal trespass in Clayton County State Court on Tuesday.

And that was before anyone involved in the case got to give an opening argument.

The directed verdict was issued by State Court Judge Linda Cowen, after ruling that statements given by Garrett and Stocken to a Lake City police officer about the April 19 alleged fight between them -- at the house they share -- were inadmissible.

That was the key evidence that Assistant Solicitor General Janet Smith-Taylor had against Garrett and Stocken as the trial was set to begin.

"As both of the victims involved here are defendants, the state cannot call either of them as witnesses," said Judge Cowen. "The state has realized it has no evidence. With that in mind, the court has found the defendants 'Not Guilty.'"

Garrett was facing charges of simple assault, simple battery, simple battery/family violence, and two counts of criminal trespassing. Stocken was facing charges of simple battery, simple battery/family violence, battery, and battery-family violence for his involvement in the incident.

Lake City Police Officer Carol Parker began investigating the matter on April 21, after emergency medical technicians (EMTs) were summoned to Garrett's home by her son, who was concerned that she was having difficulty breathing, Smith-Taylor said.

"Garrett allegedly started an altercation with Stocken by arguing with him about a credit card charge of approximately $85 for a motel room, and allegedly grabbed a chain and pulled it from the neck of Stocken," Parker wrote in the April 21 affidavit for Garrett's arrest. Garrett and Stocken were on trial together.

Just after the jury was selected and the trial was about to begin on Tuesday afternoon, Stocken's attorney, Danielle Roberts, introduced a joint motion on behalf of herself and Herbert Adams, the attorney for Garrett. The motion called for Cowen to disallow any testimony from Parker about statements Garrett and Stocken made in answer to her inquiries about the fight.

The jury was sent out of the courtroom while attorneys argued over the merits of the motion. Roberts and Adams argued that the statements made by their clients were testimonial in nature. Roberts said the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that testimonial statements made in response to police questioning could not be admitted into evidence in cases like the one involving Garrett and Stocken.

Garrett and Stocken were going to plead the fifth amendment (of the U.S. Constitution), and not give testimony, during the trial, Roberts said.

Smith-Taylor argued that Parker "wasn't interrogating her [Garrett], she was simply asking, 'What's going on?" because she did not know the details of the incident until after talking to the school board member.

Cowen ruled that the only statement Garrett made to Parker that was admissible was "Shhhhh. I have something to tell you, but not until they [the EMTs] leave," because it was not made in response to a question about what happened.

"I'm a little baffled by the state's assertion that 'What's happening?' isn't a question," Cowen said. " 'What's happening?' is a question ... they [Garrett and Stocken's statements to Parker] are in response to questioning."

Smith-Taylor then announced she had no evidence without Parker's testimony about the statements made to her by Garrett and Stocken. A witness to the incident, who was scheduled to testify on the state's behalf, could not be located in the days leading up to the trial, the prosecutor said.

"She was a witness to the fight, and that would have allowed me to go after at least one of them," said Smith-Taylor, who declined to identify which defendant she would have used the witness against. "Because she, all of the sudden, disappeared, we were unable to put forward any other evidence ...

"If both defendants are also the victims, then it's very hard to build a case against them unless you have a third party who witnessed the crime," Smith-Taylor added.

The lack of evidence led the judge to issue the directed verdict, and the jury was then called back into the courtroom where they were informed of what had happened.

"It's disappointing, but it is a fair verdict," Smith-Taylor said.

Adams and Roberts both said they were happy with the outcome of the case, and they had long argued there was no evidence against their clients.