The trial of former University of Montana Grizzlies quarterback Jordan Johnson has attracted a room full of spectators all week long.
“It’s a big spectacle. I’ve not seen this many people at a trial consistently,” Brian Smith, a public defender, said Friday.
The trial began Friday, Feb. 8, with jury selection; it resumes Wednesday, Feb. 20, and could run a couple of more weeks. The courtroom has public seating for more than 120 people, and has been mostly full since testimony began.
Among those spending long hours in the Missoula County Courthouse, watching the proceedings, are lawyers, law students, UM football players, police officers, the media and interested members of the public.
Smith, practicing law since 1997, said at least a third of the room has been filled with lawyers. Watching such a trial unfold is a learning experience even for a seasoned attorney because a professional gets ideas about how expert witnesses behave on the witness stand, a particular judge’s expectations and how other lawyers handle their own cases.
“There’s just no one right way to do it. Theft is the highest form of flattery when you’re presenting an idea,” Smith said.
On Thursday, a national expert in victim trauma and sexual assault testified. Smith said if the state brings that witness back in another case, a defender who has seen the expert on the stand is years ahead of the game.
The witness examination is punctuated by many objections, and at times, the judge has even talked with a witness herself to determine whether to allow a particular line of questioning. And Smith said watching the judge’s direction to the lawyers is instructive.
“Actually, I thought the attorneys in this case are walking a fine line,” Smith said. “I’ve been in front of Judge (Karen) Townsend quite a bit, and it’s an interesting dynamic.”
Jacob Allington is one of many aspiring lawyers spending time in the courtroom. He studied economics and philosophy and is a first-year law student at the University of Montana.
“This is the first real live trial I’ve seen,” Allington said during a recess Friday. “It’s interesting to see the adversarial system at work. It’s much different than what you see on TV.”
Allington said he is especially interested in this case because it may influence state statutes. Montana has a statute on sexual assault and another on rape – “sexual intercourse without consent” – and Allington said the statutes are not well-integrated.
One statute defines sexual assault, a charge that’s an easier hurdle for a prosecution to prove. The statute about sexual intercourse without consent – the charge in this case – requires the use of force, he said, and it doesn’t require the victim to resist.
He said the case could lead to changes in the way the law defines “without consent.”
The courtroom also has spectators who see their presence as a kind of civic engagement. Toni Lozeau is retired, and some of her friends wonder why she’s spending her free time at the County Courthouse.
She’s a season ticket holder for the football games, and she’s been a single mom all her adult life, and those interests have led her to watch the case progress with her own eyes.
“I just knew this was going to be a high-profile case,” Lozeau said.
She would not want to be on the jury because of the hard decision jurors will have to make, but she wanted to be a part of the process.
Lozeau believes it’s important to be informed about the event as a member of the community, and she wants to hear the witnesses firsthand.
“I think this is a very important case to listen to,” she said.