Behind the Guilty Verdict
Jurors Talk About the South Park Murder Trial from Their Point of View
The attack that occurred in South Park on July 19, 2009, was so terrifying, and such a heinous violation, that even some people who considered it their duty to learn about its details soon developed second thoughts.
One juror in the case, an older African American man who'd been fidgeting during early trial testimony last month, stopped showing up. The other jurors weren't told exactly why he would no longer be hearing the case against Isaiah Kalebu, the man ultimately convicted of raping two women and murdering one of them that night in South Park. The judge simply told the jury on June 13 that their colleague had "called in sick."
Those watching the proceedings from the courtroom benches heard a fuller story, however. Outside the presence of the jury, King County Superior Court judge Michael Hayden told the courtroom that the man was dismissed after complaining of sleepless nights and stress-induced hives.
It was surprising, in a way, that 16 people (12 jurors and four alternates) had ever been found for this jury in the first place. Jurors generally shouldn't have previous knowledge of the case they're hearing, and this case had received wide media attention in the almost two years since the attacks. In May, some 3,000 citizens of King County were called in for consideration. Eventually, 16 suitable people, eight men and eight women, were impaneled.
One of them was the man who dropped out with hives. Another was JoAnn Wuitschick, 46, a human-resources benefits manager at the University of Washington.
Like all the jurors, she was warned she would be hearing difficult testimony. But she thought, "This is our duty."
As they sat in a stuffy eighth-floor courtroom under fluorescent lights, Wuitschick and the other jurors heard a story that touched on many of the rawest fears and thorniest issues of urban life. Others in the room, including the victims' families and reporters, listened to the testimony from wooden benches set on an uninspired checkerboard of light brown marble and dark brown marble floor tiles. There were tears, winces, closed eyes, deep breaths. This story was hard for anyone involved—including the jurors—to listen to dispassionately.
A young African American man with a history of psychological instability had climbed, on a hot summer night, through the open bathroom window in a small red house shared by two white women in a neighborhood on the southern edge of Seattle.
The women were successful professionals committed to doing good, both of them serving on the board of a nonprofit devoted to helping the homeless, both completely in love with each other, both absorbed in the excitement and challenges of planning a ceremony that fall to honor their commitment (in a state that doesn't allow same-sex marriage).
One of the women was Teresa Butz, then 39. Her partner, who is not being named out of respect for her wishes, was at the time 36. They had recently been discussing which of them would carry their baby.
The man who climbed through their window sometime after midnight: Isaiah Kalebu. He was 22 years old that summer. Though jurors weren't told this, he'd recently been in and out of dozens of jobs because of his psychological instability, and more recently in and out of the state's criminal-justice and mental-health systems. The night of the South Park attacks, he was free—in retrospect, mistakenly—while he awaited trial on earlier charges of threatening to kill his own mother.
Jurors heard how Kalebu raped both of the women repeatedly at knifepoint, telling each that he would kill the other if they didn't comply with his demands. They heard how he told them he was only after sex and then, after about 90 minutes, he began cutting them, fatally stabbing Butz in the heart as both women fought back.
They heard about the tremendous amount of evidence he left at the scene of the crime: DNA, fingerprints, a bloody footprint. It took more than a week just to go through all of the physical evidence of the assaults.
Prosecutors had considered the death penalty in this case, though jurors didn't know that. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg ultimately declined to pursue capital punishment, because Kalebu's psychological instability would make it legally challenging to get. Going for life in prison without the possibility of parole was more realistic.
The jury also never heard about the in-court outbursts and in-jail suicide attempts Kalebu engaged in as he tried to fight the legal vise that was tightening around him. They didn't know Kalebu's attorneys ultimately claimed he was insane, or that Judge Hayden rejected that claim. They didn't know Kalebu's disruptions were being mitigated by elaborate restraints, by forcing him to view the proceedings remotely, and something called a suicide smock (a green flop of fabric with no strings, sleeves, or other possible aids to self-harm). All of this was hidden from the jurors in order to give Kalebu a fair trial, and to give them the opportunity to render a verdict that would be hard to appeal.
"I completely understand why it was withheld," said another female juror, who asked to remain anonymous, in an interview after the trial concluded. "This case, as it was presented, had nothing to do with his mental health." Now that the trial is over and she's been able to read more about the case, she said: "I can see that he's got a lot of mental problems. But he also strikes me as someone who's very manipulative and controlling."
On June 6, when Wuitschick heard the prosecution's opening summary of the gruesome events that transpired that night in South Park, she wondered if maybe she'd overestimated what she could take. In a post-trial interview, she recalled asking herself on that day, "Why am I here?"
On the third day of the trial, Wuitschick got an answer.
Prosecutors called the woman who survived the attacks, now 38, to the witness stand. "I held my breath," Wuitschick said. "I was like, 'Okay, here we go.'"
The power of the woman's testimony awed Wuitschick. "Just her directness, and her composure, and her posture," Wuitschick said. "I wanted to go up and hug her afterward... It seemed she wanted not only to tell her story, but to tell Teresa's story, to tell their story. I was honored to hear about how their relationship started, how it blossomed, how it grew, where it got to, and what they were planning. I was so honored."
Days of testimony became weeks of testimony.
On the morning of June 29, Kalebu showed up to testify "with three guards behind him, just to protect everybody," Wuitschick recalled. Those watching from the courtroom knew that Kalebu was also wearing discreet leather restraints and had a remote-controlled Taser-like device strapped to his body beneath his clothes, just in case.
But Wuitschick didn't know this. She just knew that her palms began to sweat at the sight of Kalebu. She told herself, "Okay, full focus, it's going to be interesting."
Kalebu admitted to the crimes, saying God had told him to attack his "enemies." Which, for Wuitschick, "affirmed" what the prosecution had already spent so much time trying to prove.
On the afternoon of June 29, Kalebu's defense team delivered its closing argument. They'd done little cross-examining of the prosecution's witnesses and hadn't called any witnesses of their own—except for Kalebu, who called himself against their advice. Now, defense attorney Michael Schwartz rose to deliver what amounted to Kalebu's only real defense, a buckshot attack on the prosecution's case.
Schwartz described the survivor's testimony as unreliable because, he told the jury, she was obviously in thrall to a female detective who'd worked on the case. "That's her hero," Schwartz said. He suggested the survivor had identified Kalebu as the attacker simply because the detective told her Kalebu was the attacker. Wuitschick didn't buy it; she saw the connection between the detective and the survivor as something much different, and far less sinister. "Woman to woman," she called it. "Don't mess with that."
On the topic of whether the attacks had been premeditated, Schwartz pointed to the survivor during his closing argument and said, "The best evidence of a lack of premeditation... is sitting right there in the second row."
Wuitschick was disgusted.
"I was like: 'What the fuck? Because she lived there was no premeditation? That makes no sense.'"
The other female juror felt the same way, "That was bullshit."
The main phase of the trial ended. Before deliberations could begin, however, the three alternate jurors needed to be revealed—to the jury and to the rest of the courtroom—and then dismissed. The woman who called Schwartz's argument "bullshit" stayed. But Wuitschick, it turned out, was one of the alternates. She didn't worry. She trusted her fellow jurors and agrees "100 percent" with the decision they reached on July 1.
Kalebu, they found, was guilty on all counts (premeditated first-degree murder, felony murder, attempted premeditated murder, rape, and burglary—all committed with a deadly weapon and deliberate cruelty or sexual motivation).
The survivor cried as this verdict was read. She hugged the prosecutors. After she left, Kalebu's other defense attorney, Ramona Brandes, told reporters, "She was the best witness I have seen in my 14 years as an attorney."
Though Kalebu's sentence will officially come later, it's known already. Because of the severity of his crimes, Judge Hayden is required to give Kalebu life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The judge thanked the jury for their service, telling them, "Most folks, when presented with the opportunity to do this, would have said, 'I can't do it.'" He offered them certificates of jury service, which he acknowledged, to laughs from them and the rest of the room, "don't mean much." He offered them counseling, which they later declined through the bailiff. They just wanted to be done.
In an e-mail sent the day after the verdict came down, Adam Butz, the oldest nephew of Teresa Butz, wrote, "Justice has been served."
This article has been updated since its original publication.