Jaycee Dugard case: surprise 'not guilty' plea hints at delay tactics ahead

Phillip Garrido, accused of kidnapping Jaycee Dugard in 1991 at age 11, pleaded not guilty Thursday and is contesting the legitimacy of his indictment, signaling a bid to delay the case.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Susan Gellman, the court-appointed attorney for Phillip Garrido, talks with reporters after entering a not guilty plea for her client during an arraignment hearing in Placerville, Calif., Thursday. Judge Douglas Phimister set a trial date of Aug. 1 for Garrido and his wife, Nancy, who both face multiple charges in the 1991 kidnapping of Jaycee Dugard.

The unexpected plea of "not guilty" Thursday by Phillip Garrido, who is accused of kidnapping Jaycee Dugard at age 11 and holding her captive for 18 years, has illustrated that this case – once considered somewhat straightforward – could become a tangle of legal procedures.

The "not guilty" plea has exposed a rift between the lawyer for Mr. Garrido and the lawyer for his wife, Nancy. Ms. Garrido's lawyer, Stephen Tapson, had announced earlier in the week that Mr. Garrido intended to plead guilty. The two lawyers exchanged heated words outside the court in Placerville, Calif., Thursday.

In addition, the plea came as Mr. Garrido's lawyer, public defender Susan Gellman, claimed that the grand jury that indicted the couple in September was improperly selected. The complaint is based on the jury's racial and geographic makeup. The complaint is common in high-profile cases, a district attorney told the Los Angeles Times, and it could be denied, cause a slight delay so another jury can be selected, or result in a months-long delay as the trial is moved to another venue.

"Delay" could the be the key word in the case. Mr. Garrido might be trying to delay prison time, because the evidence against him is very strong, says Michelle Dempsey, a professor at Villanova School of Law in Pennsylvania. “Defendants don’t want to plead guilty any earlier than they have to,” she says.

There are other motivations for Mr. Garrido to try to draw things out, as well, says Philip Anthony, CEO of DecisionQuest, a trial research and consulting firm based in 10 US cities.

[Editor's note: Mr. Anthony's name was incorrect in the original.]

“Delays in criminal trials are often instigated with the hope that there could be a change of heart by those who testify, or that something will happen to the evidence,” he says. “The more they can delay proceedings, the more potential for pieces of the prosecution case to fall apart.”

The trial centers on the allegation that the Garridos abducted Ms. Dugard from a bus stop in South Lake Tahoe, Calif, in 1991 and held her captive until she was discovered in 2009. Dugard fathered two daughters by Mr. Garrido during her captivity behind the Garrido house in Antioch, Calif.

The surprise "not guilty" plea Thursday boils down to a serious breach of legal etiquette by Ms. Garrido's lawyer, say experts.

“The lesson of this trial so far is that you can’t let the cat out of the bag,” says Lou Shapiro, a Los Angeles-based criminal attorney and member of the Board of Governors of the California Attorney’s for Criminal Justice.

Besides causing “general chaos,” he says, “once it’s widely known that [the defendant] has admitted guilt, what juror can listen to anything else objectively?”

The second twist was a bid by Mr. Garrido and his lawyer to challenge September's secret grand jury indictment. The process was kept secret, and the testimony kept sealed, to prevent Dugard from having to testify publicly before the trial. Professor Dempsey calls this a textbook case of why a preliminary hearing might want to be held in front of a grand jury to protect a victim’s right to privacy.

Mr. Garrido is challenging the legitimacy of the jury. “If the composition of the grand jury that indicted Garrido was actually tainted by racial discrimination, then the indictment cannot properly be used as a basis for his prosecution,” says Dempsey.

The next hearing is scheduled for May 5 and the trial for Aug. 1.

"People watching this from the outside can learn how many possible hurdles and challenges there are in a court case this complicated before it actually gets resolved,” says Laurie Levenson, professor of law at Loyola Law School. “I’m watching it with interest to see how the judge deals with all these hurdles.”

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