Former teller’s trial focuses on pictures from ruined video tape
April 18, 2002
The jury trial of a former Alpine Bank teller accused of stealing $4,000 from a co-worker’s money drawer finished its second day Wednesday on a sour note for the defense.
“Her hand is in the drawer,” said Erlinda Morehead, Alpine Bank’s head of security at its Aspen branch, near the end of the day’s testimony.
Morehead was referring to a picture of defendant Susana Braunthal standing in front of an open money drawer at a co-worker’s teller station.
When asked by District Attorney Lawson Wills whether tellers at Alpine Bank normally put their hands in co-workers’ money drawers, Morehead was blunt.
“It would be like going to a supermarket and sticking your hand into the cash register – it simply is not allowed,” she said.
But not everything went the prosecution’s way. Judge J.E. DeVilbiss did not allow the prosecution to introduce a badly degraded videotape that allegedly showed Braunthal taking money from the drawer.
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So, as its primary evidence, prosecutors relied on seven fuzzy still shots, captured from a critical one-minute and 58-second portion of the videotape shortly before it became unviewable.
@ATD Sub heds:The second go round
@ATD body copy: The current trial of Braunthal is actually the state’s second attempt to convict her of a theft that purportedly occurred on Nov. 24, 1999.
The original case was derailed in the fall of 2000 when Judge DeVilbiss ruled evidence and testimony related to the videotape were not admissible. The Colorado Supreme Court overturned DeVilbiss late last year, and a new trial began this week.
On the day of the alleged crime, Braunthal and two other tellers in the commercial transactions section of Alpine Bank were busy handling the rush of business that normally proceeds any holiday, according to testimony by Janice Rust.
The prosecution maintains that Braunthal took advantage of a 15-minute stretch when she was alone in the section to walk to Rust’s teller station and take the money. Rust had left her station to handle a matter for a customer that needed management approval, and the customer had walked to a different section of the bank.
Although tellers are trained to lock their money drawers whenever they step away, Rust was written up by her managers more than once for failing to do so. And shortly before the first trial in 2000, investigators told The Aspen Times that Rust admitted she had failed to lock her lower drawer that day. Yesterday, however, she testified that she locked the drawers, but wasn’t sure if she left her keys on the counter.
In spite of the state Supreme Court’s ruling, DeVilbiss again denied the prosecution the right to use the videotape as evidence. He agreed with arguments by defense attorney Fred Gannett that it is not fair to allow the prosecution to make accusations based on a tape that the jury will never be able to see. But the judge did allow the seven still shots taken from the video, and those pictures dominated much of yesterday’s testimony.
The first picture, taken from a camera on the wall behind Rust’s teller station at 11:25 on the morning in question, depicts Braunthal at her station and two empty stations next to her. Subsequent pictures snapped over the next minute and a half show someone who appears to be Braunthal in Rust’s station with the lower money drawer open.
The pictures also indicate that Braunthal is not present at her own station. A final picture of the scene, snapped at 11:27 a.m., shows Braunthal back at her station, still the only teller in the section.
The pictures are fuzzy, and, despite Morehead’s testimony, it is difficult to see whether the person at Rust’s station actually has her hand in the drawer. The security surveillance system in place at Alpine Bank at the time also makes it more difficult to discern what’s going on, because there are six cameras scattered around the lobby feeding into a single videotape. Each camera shoots for a short period of time, and then the view switches to another angle.
Even though it does appear Braunthal is standing at Rust’s station in front of an open money drawer, the switch in cameras makes it impossible to see what happens next.
Morehead’s certainty that the defendant had her hand in the drawer appears to come from the fact that she viewed the videotape early on, when the images may have been sharper. But she avoided making undue reference to the inadmissible videotape on direct or cross-examination.
Braunthal’s defense also suffered a blow during Rust’s testimony, when attorney Gannett was shut down by the judge as he attempted to show that Rust had cause to steal the money.
Rust testified on direct examination that shortly before the money disappeared, she had been ordered by a civil court judge to reimburse a former boyfriend more than $4,300. But she told the jury that she had refinanced her home in Aspen Village to pay the debt off a few weeks before the crime occurred.
When Gannett tried to introduce evidence that might have impeached Rust’s testimony about the matter, District Attorney Wills objected, saying he couldn’t read the copy given to him. DeVilbiss quickly sustained that objection. The judge was equally quick to sustain a second objection to the line of questioning Gannett started after the first setback.
The trial resumes today. Wills said he expects to rest his case soon after proceedings begin. Gannett would not say how many – if any – witnesses he plans to call for the defense.