A Haines jury found resident Ted Hart not guilty of a weapons-related felony charge at Hart’s retrial this week. The state accused 29-year-old Hart of knowingly living in a residence with a concealable firearm while on probation for a prior felony conviction, which is illegal. After Hart’s original trial in April, the jury failed to agree on a verdict and the judge declared a mistrial. His retrial took place this week.
The weapons misconduct charge stems from an August 2014 visit by Hart’s probation officer, Sara Dallas, and former Haines police officer Adam Patterson. Dallas checked in on Hart, who was living at his grandparents’ house. The officers found two handguns in the residence, including one in Hart’s bedroom closet.
State Assistant District Attorney Amy Paige is the prosecutor in the case. She brought in three witnesses: Dallas, Patterson and former Haines Police Chief Bill Musser. Dallas recounted the visit where they found the firearms. She said Patterson first found a handgun in Hart’s brother’s room. They asked Hart whether there were other guns in the house.
“He said that there were gonna be some rifles in the bedroom closet and a handgun that he had taken camping in the shelf in the closet,” Dallas said.
The rifles aren’t considered concealable, but the gun Patterson found in Hart’s closet was, as argued by the state. It was a .357 Ruger. Patterson called Chief Musser to the house.
“First I asked him if he was on probation and I asked him then, ‘do you realize you’re not supposed to have a handgun in possession given your status?’ And he said he was,” Musser said.
In her questioning, prosecutor Paige emphasized that point – that Hart said he knew he was not allowed to have a concealable firearm. But defense attorney Timothy Ayer said, of course Hart would have known that, Dallas told him before Musser arrived.
“PO Dallas had told him you’re not supposed to have that gun there,” Ayer said. “So five minutes later when Chief Musser shows up and says do you know you’re not supposed to have that, of course he’s going to say yes.”
Then the record-keeping of the Haines Police Department was called into question. Ayer asked Patterson about the two police chiefs who had preceded Musser – Simon Ford and Gary Lowe. Ayer asked if Lowe and Ford were good at record-keeping, and Patterson said no.
“Simon had very little experience, he had been promoted to a sergeant after two years,” Patterson said. “I think his focus was with a lot of other stuff at the time other than keeping records and so I don’t know that his was intentional. I can excuse him more than Chief Lowe, who had been doing it for 37 years.”
Ayer says that matters because Hart was on probation starting in 2012. Musser started as chief in 2014. Ayer said the state presented no evidence that the two former chiefs did not give Hart permission to have a concealable firearm in his home.
“You didn’t hear Gary Lowe, you didn’t hear Simon Ford saying we never did it,” Ayer said during his closing statement. “So during the majority of the time that Mr. Hart was living here, we have no evidence regarding whether he’d gotten that sort of permission.”
Paige questioned Patterson:
“At any point when you were having contact with the defendant and you were in Mr. Hart’s house, did he show you any paperwork from the police department that said look I have permission to have that weapon?” Paige asked.
“No,” Patterson responded.
“At any point did he say but wait I have permission from the chief law enforcement agency in this jurisdiction?”
Ayer also called into question whether Hart knew he wasn’t allowed to live in a dwelling with a concealable gun. Dallas explained what the usual procedures are when a probation officer goes over conditions of probation with someone, but she was not the officer who had that conversation with Hart. Ayer said because the jury did not hear from that person, there is reasonable doubt that Hart did not know about the firearms prohibition. Hart did sign a document saying he understood the conditions of his probation.
Finally, Ayer brought up the family and cultural significance of Hart living in his deceased grandfather’s house and caring for his possessions. Ayer called Hart’s mother, Harriet Brouillette, to the stand.
“In our culture, it’s our practice that when somebody passes away, their belongings usually stay where they are for at least a year while the family is grieving,” Brouillette said.
During the trial, the audience was filled with Hart’s family and friends. Some of them reacted with outrage to the way Paige questioned Brouilette.
“You know your son, right? He’s a convicted felon, right?” Paige questioned Brouilette.
In Paige’s closing argument, she acknowledged that Hart was fulfilling a family duty by caring for his grandfather’s possessions. But, she said, he also has a duty to follow the law, and he violated that.
Ayer told the jury that the state had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Hart knew about the firearms restrictions. He said the state also had not proven that Hart didn’t have permission from one of the former chiefs to have a concealable firearm.
After about five hours of deliberation, the jury found Hart not guilty. It was an emotional moment for Hart and his family. In an interview, Hart thanked Ayer, his lawyer.
“He went above and beyond being a public defender,” Hart said. “And I feel like justice was served today. And I’m going to continue to do well in this community, raise my son and participate in healthy activities and better this community.”
Brouillette also thanked Ayer, who wasn’t present because he had to fly back to Juneau after closing statements.
“I can’t believe it’s finally over,” she said. “It’s been over a year of stress. You know, every year we carry that weight of worry…It’s over and it feels wonderful.”