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On the Jury: the Murder of Lilly Jane Nguyen
October 27, 2023
by William P. Meyers

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What is a hate crime?

I received a jury notification postcard from the King County Courthouse in the second week of September, 2023. I knew the routine: have a lot of time wasted, do not end up on a jury. Then on September 26 I received an email from the court. It asked me to complete a questionnaire and be ready to attend a Zoom jury selection session on October 2 in the afternoon. It also said that if I was selected for a trial, it might go until November 2. So a pretty major trial

Jury selection only vaguely resembled the process I had seen in movies and on TV. A lot of jurors were excused because they said they could not afford to be on a jury that long or were not healthy enough. I am retired and healthy, so no such excuse. The questions asked to us seemed mostly very general, but a few were specific. The prosecuting attorneys were two women, the defense attorneys a man and a woman. Some of the questions were about hate crimes, and some were about domestic violence. Instead of asking each juror each question, they typically asked for hands to be raised, or picked on a specific juror for no reason obvious to me. The two questions I recall answering were about truthfulness and hate crimes. I said I believe people lie all the time and knowing when they are lying requires external facts. I said it occurred to me that while I was familiar with the idea of a hate crime, I did not know what the legal definition was, and I would like to know that.

I figured I would not be picked because on the prior questionnaire I had said I had once been charged with inciting a riot, although a federal judge dismissed the charge. But surprise, the next week, on October 4, I received notice that I would be on the jury. I was instructed to report to the courthouse in downtown Seattle on October 10.

Not wanting to drive downtown, or leave my wife without the car, I set out early, in the rain, to take public transit. It is two blocks from my home to the bus stop. The bus runs to the Roosevelt light rail station. I am used to working from home, so it was strange to be on a bus with a bunch of commuters, many of them likely going to the University of Washington. Almost all were glued to their cell phone screens. It is a long block from the bus stop to the actual entrance of the light rail station. The train there is deep underground, to escalators and stairs must be traversed. I knew from experience to get into the last car, which would be the least crowded. I noticed there were transit police at the station. That was new, something that had happened recently, because of so much crime taking place in or near the system.

The King County Courthouse is near Seattle's Pioneer Square and its transit station, still a tourist draw but now also notorious for homeless campers and crime. I was not sure which exit would be most efficient, but I tried to head north out of the station. That did the trick, via a very long escalator that badly needed cleaning. When I emerged I saw tents on Third Avenue all along the opposite side, the west side, of the street. Nothing dangerous on my side, however. I was there early, but headed to the Courthouse, only a block south of me. I could see a rather long line of people going through the security process. Putting their belongings in trays, putting the trays through a machine, walking through another machine, with lots of security guards involved. In addition, there were transit police out on the sidewalk, making me feel the neighborhood would not be safe if they were not there.

The area in front of the courthouse was also a major bus stop, with the variety of lines available up on signs. I do not like security searches, so I walked around the block to kill some time before heading inside. Conforming to the rules, I emptied my pockets into a large gray rectangular tray: wallet, cell phone, facemask, watch, pen. I set off the machine when I walked through it, so was sent to one of the wand police, who decided I was okay. I gathered my stuff and went upstairs to find my jury room. It was maybe 8:40 AM. The trial was scheduled for 9:00 AM, but I was skeptical of any legal procedure starting on time. Did I say I was a paralegal back in the 1980s? Just civil stuff, not criminal.

A few people were sitting in the hall outside the door to the courtroom. I tried the door and was met by the bailiff. Inside, to our left, was the jury room. A bunch of people were already there, even though I was early. There were only two remaining chairs; I took one. Eventually the final juror, for a total of 15, came in. Three of us were alternates, but they would not tell us who they were. The bailiff came in again and talked about logistics, like parking validations for those who had driven in. Most of us, those living in Seattle, had used public transit. Several people living outside Seattle had driven in. We were also given juror numbers, which determined our seats. There was coffee if we wanted it. Most of the jurors remained glued to their cell phones.

Time passed. It was well after 9:00 AM when we were called into the court room. I was juror number 7, and as such was in the front row, all the way to the right if you faced the jury. Judge Marshall Ferguson thanked us for being there and gave us the same instructions we had been given at least twice. Mainly, do not talk about the trial to anyone, including the other jurors, and do not do any research on any of the topics in the trial.

The trial began. One of the two King County prosecutor women, Amani Samad, young (at least to me, I am approaching 70) and dressed as you would expect of a lawyer, gave the state's opening statement. Her prosecution partner was Bridgette Maryman. According to the prosecutors, the case involved a man who murdered his ex-wife, who I will call Lilly Full name Lilly Jane Flores Nguyen. The defendant went by Jean-Pierre or Juan Flores-Gomez. Juan was Hispanic. The murder took place in Lilly's apartment in the university district, a couple of blocks from the University of Washington campus. The couple met in Vietnam. There they had a child together, Hannah. In Seattle they had shared the apartment once they were married in 2010. Lilly already had a child, Jenny, by a prior marriage. Six years before the 2020 incident they were divorced, and Juan went to live with his prior ex-wife, Maria. Hannah lived with Lilly, but often visited Juan. She was about 10 years old when the incident happened. Lilly had a new boyfriend, Damien, who was a security officer at the university, and who was black. Juan did not know about him until one day, returning Hannah to Lilly, no one answered the door at Unit 9, 4550 16th Avenue NE, Seattle. This was October 7, 2020, during the pandemic

Worried, Hannah and Juan contacted the apartment building manager. He also knocked and rang the bell, but no one answered. He unlocked the door. The boyfriend answered the door. He was an African-American police officer working for the University of Washington police. Lilly was there too. She told Juan this man was her new boyfriend. Juan was not just upset at her new relationship. He voiced that she should not go out with a black man. Eventually Juan was shut out, but he remained in the courtyard and pled with Lilly from there. Loud enough that several neighbors heard him pleading, including saying she should not be with a black man. He left the complex but came back that night with flowers. He asked Lilly to get back together with him, and again complained that she should not date a black man. She kept him outside the door. He eventually left. Damien, her boyfriend, stayed overnight.

Juan repeatedly phoned and texted Lilly late that night and early the next morning, but she ignored him. The next morning he arrived early and Lilly answered the door. He for here to come back to him, and when she said no plead to be let in. He would not go away. Eventually he persuaded Lilly to give him a glass of water, promising to leave after that. He entered the apartment, grabbed a kitchen knife, and started stabbing Lilly, who screamed.

Damien and Hannah had been upstairs. Hanah ran down the stairs first, while Damien grabbed his service revolver. He worked for the University Police. He pulled Juan off Lilly and held him at gunpoint in the living room. Hannah tried to help her mother, who was on the floor, bleeding. Neighbors had called 911 and came in to render first aid. Police arrived, then firefighter paramedics. Despite their efforts Lilly was declared dead when she arrived at the hospital. The charges were first degree murder and committing a hate crime.

The defense took much less time. The female lawyer, Katherine Buckby, made their opening statement. They did not dispute the fact that Juan stabbed Lilly, causing her death. They disputed that it was first degree, premedicated murder. They would show there was reasonable doubt that the murder was not premeditated. They would also show that it was not a hate crime. Katherine's defense partner was a male, Adrien Leavitt. Juan sat at their table, between them, looking glum.

Most of the rest of the following days of the trial consisted of testimony from witnesses. How the prosecuting lawyers were introducing exhibits was new to me. They would ask witnesses to identify themselves, including spelling their name. They might ask some other questions, like why they were at or went to the crime scene. For police and other professionals, they asked about their training. Then they would ask them if they created or found an exhibit, for instance a report or a recording of some sort. The lawyer would bring up some paper, or a picture, or some form of media (mostly looking like either thumb drives or CD/DVDs), and the clerk would give it a number. Then, if it was a report, they would ask how the report was generated. Then they would show the witness the exhibit, so the witness could agree it was really the report or recording they had made. Several times a picture of Lilly was shown to different witnesses. But these exhibits were mostly not shown to the jury. Because some of us sat so near the witnesses, they were instructed to hold the exhibits so we could not see them, and we were instructed to look away. I sat closest to the witnesses, so I became practiced at looking away from exhibits.

I presume this was all about the chain of evidence. Despite the defense opening statement, the prosecutors likely needed to show that all of the evidence was credible. For instance, that the reports were indeed generated by witnesses. If they did not do that, later the defense might say something was relied on that was not proven, so a reasonable doubt was created, so the jury could not find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. That said, in some cases we were shown the exhibits, or parts of them. We saw pictures that were freeze-frames of videos, we saw videos, and we heard audio recording. There were two very large flat screens on the wall of the courtroom across from us for this purpose.

The neighbor friends, the Lees, lived in an apartment near Lilly's. The apartment complex was around a small courtyard and was three stories high. There were small apartments on the ground floor, then the apartments above them were larger, on the two top floors, with an interior staircase, and an outside staircase to reach the front door. Mrs. Lee had known Lilly, Juan and Hannah for years. She had children, one who played with Hannah. So she knew they had divorced and Juan had moved out years earlier. She did not say anything negative about Juan, but she said Lilly was a lovely person. She was aware, from her own hearing and talking to Lilly, of the incident the night before the murder, when Juan found out about the new lover. When she heard Lilly screaming the next morning, at first she did not think it was a human voice. Realizing it was, she went over and saw Lilly on the floor of the kitchen, with Hannah over her and Adrien detaining Juan. She tried to help Hannah.

We heard from a medically trained woman, Courtney, a midwife, who was also a neighbor. She was white. She heard the screams, she called 911, she realized trying to stop the bleeding was not enough. She had equipment to put fluids back into veins, so quickly got that, but Lilly's veins had collapsed. Courtney could not get fluids into her. Lilly's pulse was very weak. Soon the fire department EMTs arrived, and they quickly put Lilly in a stretcher and rushed her to Harborview Hospital, the local trauma center.

A young black woman neighbor took Hannah back to her apartment. Several police testified: the first responder, more arriving police, then once Lilly was removed the CSI squad and finally the detectives. The police said Juan was mainly calm but complained that his wife had been dating a black man. Interestingly, an EMT responder could hardly remember the incident, so shocking to most of us. He read from his report, which said how she had been stabbed, was unresponsive, and was declared dead upon arriving at the hospital.

On 10/16/2022, we heard from Jenny Lee Nguyen, Lilly's older daughter. The lawyers went over calls and texts she had with Juan Flores-Gomez during the time leading up to the incident. They showed Juan's emphasis on the black race of Damien. She also recounted how Juan was prejudiced against black children, forbidding her to play with them and saying that black boys were dangerous.

A female detective talked to us about the measuring of the crime scene and placement of evidence within it. We learned from a specialist detective about how they retrieved text messages from defendant's phone, upset at black boyfriend. In them and in other reported conversations Juan talked much about God, Christianity, and wanting Lilly to be good and go to the Seventh Day Adventist church with him again. Juan was very specific about the devil being in league with the black boyfriend.

At some point, I think on this day, we heard the only witness from the defense. She was a black woman who worked at the university hospital as a care coordinator. She had used Juan as a translator for Spanish speaking patients. She only saw him at work on occasion, but she also spent some time with him outside of work. They were both Christians. She had never heard or seen Juan make a racist remark or do anything that indicated he had racist sentiments.

On 10/17/2023, after the prosecution questioned the detective about the chain of evidence, we saw a video recording from a security camera in the apartment kitchen. It showed Juan walk up to a wood knife block, grab a knife, and turn around. You hear Lilly scream, see her and Juan struggling, see Hanah briefly try to pull Juan off, then Juan goes back to stabbing. By then the camera has been knocked a bit so the view is obscured.

Keep in mind that all this time I am focused on two issues: whether the crime was premeditated and whether it was a hate crime. The witnesses and video record left no reasonable doubt that Juan killed Lilly. At some point we were shown a picture of here shirt almost entirely stained with blood.

We also heard from Doctor Catherine Schertelz, of the King County Medical Examiner's office, about the cause of death. In this case we saw photographs of Lilly's body. Because the knife blade was thin and not wide, and the blood had been washed away, the wounds looked relatively minor. What looked like the worst wound were flesh wounds where the knife had not penetrated deeply. There were two wounds either of which would likely have been mortal, one in the front and one in the back. One nicked the aorta, the other the pulmonary artery.

October 18 was the final day of testimony. There was just one witness, Damien Taylor, Lilly's boyfriend. He was interrogated by Zoom, rather than in person. Several times he had to stop, very upset. But he mostly repeated what we already knew. When he saw Juan on Lilly, he first thought Juan was just punching her. He did not see the blood at first, as he hauled Juan away at gunpoint and Hannah tried to help her mother.

It was October 19, 2023, a Thursday. First came the prosecution summary. It was as expected: we know Juan murdered Lilly. It was premeditated, with examples on how to think about premeditation, including the continuation of stabbing, even when Hannah tried to stop him. As to hate crimes, she repeated some of the evidence.

The Defense's concluding remarks centered on the theory that Juan lost control of himself: he snapped. Hence the stabbing could not be premeditated. The defense essentially asked us to find him guilty of second-degree murder. They reminded us of the one defense witness, the black woman who had worked, intermittently, with Juan and never heard him make a negative remark about race. So he did not hate black people, and it was not a hate crime.

Prosecution's rebuttal just reminded us of Jenny's stories of Juan's dislike of black children, and tore apart the "snap" theory, in case any juror was buying it.

The judge gave us printed instructions on the law. They were quite detailed, about 30 pages worth. A lot of them were definitions, like the difference between first-degree and second-degree murder, and the definition of a hate crime. There were definitions of words used in the more general definitions, like the words premeditated and domestic violence. And what size a knife had to be, to be considered a deadly weapon.

Three of the 15 jurors were told they were alternates and sent home. Then the rest of us went into jury room. We had gotten to know each other a bit over time. There were nine males and three females. Everyone was white except a short woman, dark complexioned, whom I had guessed was Hispanic, but who later identified herself as Asian. I would be the oldest man; the one woman who was older than me had been an alternate. The youngest people were likely in their thirties. Most were professionals, several in some aspect of the computer or gaming industries. We selected an ex-Microsoft worker to be lead juror.

At first it seemed like we were about to spend a few days going back over the trial and evidence, but I suggested we deal with Item A, level of murder, first, and that was agreed too. Then a man suggested we get a sense of the room, on the murder charge, and that was agreed too. Some people wanted to talk at length, and did, but essentially everyone agreed that a reasonable interpretation of the word premeditated, and the known actions of the defendant, led us to agree that he was guilty of premeditated murder. We did consider arguments against that, but we found them weak.

We had some time left (we had to stop at 4 PM), so one woman insisted we catalog the exhibits, and we did that to kill the time. We also decided the lead juror would not yet sign the paper with our first decision, so we would have the weekend to think of any other possible reasonable doubt. Because of the court schedule, we had a four-day weekend.

We returned Tuesday, October 24, 2023. The bailiff had made us some pumpkin cookies. We reviewed the murder charge, but no one wanted to subscribe to the theory that his action was not premeditated. We spent little time on the extra circumstances: that it was a case of domestic violence, that a child had been present at the scene, and that the knife was classified as a deadly weapon. These seemed clearly established based on testimony. We had the knife in a clear plastic box in front of us.

We did spend considerable effort determining whether Juan's acts constituted a hate crime. We went over the judge's instructions carefully. In addition to the general instructions, we discussed the possible ambiguity and applicability of two specific words within the instructions, I think they were action and resulting. The main question was whether Juan would have stabbed Lilly if Damien had been a white, Asian, or Hispanic male, perhaps a Seventh Day Adventist. We decided his vehement statements about Damien being black showed that Juan was motivated by racial hate as he stabbed Lilly. He was also a coward, attacking a weak person rather than going after a much larger, well-trained black police officer.

When the court had reassembled, we filed back out to report our findings. The ritual was: the lead juror was asked for the findings. Then each juror was asked individually. We left again, then came back for the judge to make final comments. Because of the brutal nature of the evidence we had seen, we were offered counseling. But I believe no one took up the offer. We gathered our things and headed for the elevators and back to our lives.

Note: This was case number 220015377 at the King County Court

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