LAS VEGAS -- The murder trial of Victor Fakoya is the talk of the county courthouse, and not just because he was acquitted. Jurors in the case were forced to work through the night last week to accommodate the judge's vacation schedule.
The jury found Fakoya not guilty of murder after spending six weeks hearing the case. They took their service very seriously, so when Judge Valerie Vega ordered them to begin deliberations at nearly 3 a.m. after more than 13 hours in the jury box, they figured she had a good reason.
Following a mistrial in January for the death of a two-year-old in his care, Fakoya feared another jury deadlock, or worse, when deliberations began. Eric Echevarria was jury number five.
"I had to fight my way not to fall asleep," he said. "It was a little bit frustrating at times. I felt that we shouldn't have been there that long."
Judge Vega warned jurors the four week trial, then in week six, must end December 16. But when the afternoon proceedings stretched into the early morning hours of the next day, Fakoya's attorney, Norman Reed, objected to the judicially-imposed all nighter.
"We asked if the court would poll the jury as to their alertness after 9 p.m. and I understand that the court didn't want to do that. I just want to put it on the record that we asked and the court said no because we said it might be appropriate to ask if they can remain attentive into the wee hours of the morning," he said during the hearing.
"I told counsel this case had to be done by Thursday because I am packing up and leaving town and going on vacation for two weeks," said Judge Vega during the case. "It's been very challenging for the court to juggle and give you two additional weeks and you still didn't get it done. So for you to come in here and say, 'I need more time,' there is no more time."
Vega accused the attorneys of mismanaging the schedule and said she admonished them repeatedly to move things along. But a review of the calendar reveals the proceedings typically spanned five hours or less most days and fewer than four hours on several occasions when Vega left at 2 p.m. to watch her daughter play soccer.
"As a parent you just can't get to every game," said UNLV law professor Jeff Stempel. "If a trial is not going fast enough, that should have been an obvious chance to make an adjustment and to sit until five or six those nights, rather than leaving around two."
Stempel expresses concern that an exhausted jury threatens the administration of justice. Perhaps the panel acquitted simply to go home. Echevarria insists, however, he and his fellow jurors remained focused on Fakoya, rendering the only verdict they could.
"We wanted to make sure we made the right decision and we did," he said.
Only now is Echevarria learning the judge's vacation plans dictated his deliberations, and he questions why her schedule was more important than his.
"I think that's inappropriate. I'm sure there were people who had obligations as far as the jurors and they stuck it out," he said.
Judge Vega says she certainly did not prefer to do it this way and again blames the attorneys for their inability to stay on schedule.
Judges have broad discretion to run their courtrooms as they see fit and virtually no oversight except the ballot box. There are rumblings, however, that a judicial discipline complaint may be forthcoming.
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