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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Gonzaga student’s homework assignment leads to legal battle for new murder trial

Cheryl L Sutton, 39, shown here in February, was convicted on March 1 of first-degree murder in connection with the 2015 disappearance of Bret Snow. Sutton sought a mistrial Thursday after a Gonzaga student and her friends were accused of drug use and barred from attending her trial. That motion was denied. Sutton is scheduled to be sentenced Friday at 10 a.m. by Superior Court Judge Raymond Clary. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

A recent homework assignment for a Gonzaga University student to attend a murder trial transformed into a legal fight for a new trial after a judicial assistant accused the student, and her friends, of doing drugs in court and then tried to get them arrested.

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno ruled Thursday that she would not grant a new trial to Cheryl L. Sutton, 39, based on a request by the defense that actions by Judicial Assistant Alison Myers prevented Sutton from getting a fair trial because jurors later asked Myers about her interactions with the young people.

“Regardless of the motivations of the judicial assistant … there was not a closure of the courtroom,” Moreno said. “I don’t see anything that Ms. Myers did that affected the jury. For those reasons, I’m going to deny the motion” for a new trial.

Sutton is scheduled to appear at 10 a.m. Friday for sentencing. That hearing stems from the jury decision on March 1 to convict Sutton of first-degree murder and leading an organized crime ring in connection to the disappearance of Bret Snow, who went missing in late 2015 and whose body has never been found.

According to court records and testimony, investigators believe that Sutton, Colby Vodder, Ken Stone and Alvaro Guajardo killed and butchered Snow in a garage on Sutton and Stone’s property in December 2015.

During Sutton’s trial, a female Gonzaga student was assigned to attend court on Feb. 27 and listen to testimony. The assignment came from Superior Court Judge John Cooney, who also teaches at Gonzaga. The student brought two friends.

The two young women and young man arrived after Sutton had already taken the witness stand. They sat in the only open seats available, which happened to be located directly behind Sutton and her defense attorney, Jeremy Schmidt.

The student acknowledged that her female friend was coughing and was somewhat fidgety before they noticed a woman with a Spokane County badge sat down next to them.

During the testimony, the employee, later identified as Myers, told the three observers “to quit talking but we hadn’t been talking,” the young male said in court records.

About an hour into Sutton’s testimony, the group tried to leave because the Gonzaga student’s parking meter had expired. But Myers told them they “shouldn’t leave yet.”

Once Superior Court Judge Raymond Clary called a recess, Myers directed the group to sit on a bench in the hallway outside of the courtroom. Myers then took a cellphone photograph of them and made comments about how they were dressed, they said.

“You could barely sit up in courtroom and your eyes are rolling back,” one of the girls quoted Myers as saying. “She told me I came here on drugs and that she had me on camera doing drugs in the courtroom.”

Myers “told us we were not allowed in the courtroom or the courthouse,” the student’s friend continued. Myers “told us that if she saw us come back, she would have us arrested. She told us that when she had the guards standing behind her.”

Asked what made her decide that the three visitors had been using drugs in court, Myers said on Thursday that she had no comment.

But she provided a statement to Spokane County prosecutors about her interactions with the student and her friends. Myers confirmed her belief that they had been using drugs or were under the influence of drugs.

“She told them not to come back to the courtroom or any other courtroom if they were going to behave like that,” Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor Dale Nagy wrote. “The three individuals left before police arrived.”

Schmidt, who sought the mistrial, said Myers’ actions essentially created a closed courtroom because the three individuals were led to believe they couldn’t attend.

“We want young people to take part in this legal system,” Schmidt said. “They were treated like criminals. That’s troubling. We are creating an actual prejudice to Ms. Sutton.”

Schmidt said the only way to fix the problem was to grant Sutton a new trial.

“If we send this to the Court of Appeals, they will send it back,” Schmidt said. “Let’s fix it now.”

Nagy, the prosecutor, had a different take on Myers’ actions. He called her actions appropriate even if she been “incorrect in assuming they had been taking drugs at the time.”

“If anything, the judicial assistant went to great lengths to preserve a fair trial,” Nagy said. “The judicial assistant is within her job description to maintain court decorum. Those actions weren’t inappropriate and it didn’t lead to a closure.”

Moreno said she relies heavily on judicial assistants, who mostly work behind the scenes to schedule hearings and work with attorneys and jurors to keep the court functioning properly.

She noted that a transport officer didn’t see anything on that day of Sutton’s testimony that caused a disturbance.

“It’s difficult,” Moreno said. “I don’t know what Ms. Myers’ motivation would be to harass these individuals.”

She then denied the motion for a new trial.

After the hearing, Schmidt said he was disappointed by Moreno’s ruling but that he respected it.

“Any exclusion, especially students, is disturbing,” Schmidt said. “We don’t believe it was appropriate. We believe it violated (Sutton’s) right to a public trial.”

As for Myers, Superior Court Administrator Ashley Callan said she could not comment as to whether the longtime judicial assistant was disciplined for making what the attorneys described as false drug-use accusations against the three visitors.

“It is unfortunate if these three visitors, in any way, felt unwelcome while observing Ms. Sutton’s trial,” Callan said. “We have reviewed this situation and will continue to ensure all employees are properly trained on how court observers and participants should be treated.”