Renegade camper storms out of court
ASPEN It took a jury 30 minutes Friday to find Carol Alexy guilty of illegally camping on open space near Aspen, but not before she stormed out of the courtroom, claiming she was sick. Alexy, who is over 60, made headlines last summer after police used a Taser on her because she was pillaging through a dumpster behind the Thrift Shop.Her brief appearance yesterday in Pitkin County Court, where a one-day trial had been scheduled for a jury of three, came against the backdrop of allegations she has been illegally camping 50 feet from the Lani White Trail near Hunter Creek since 2005. ‘With the power invested in me’Alexy came to court without a lawyer and was expected to be her own counsel. Wearing sweats, with a stop watch and trinkets hanging around her neck, she refused to enter the courtroom at all unless she had a Bible. Court officials hurried to the jail next door to fetch her one, and then Alexy requested no computers be allowed in the courtroom.Once seated, Alexy listened briefly, then stood, waving the Bible to “scan” the room for potential liars. She claimed the statute of limitations had expired on the case against her.”You can’t put someone in jail before they are tried,” she said, adding, “If you’re impersonating an officer of the law – I’m just warning you.”Then Alexy said, “With the power invested in me, I hereby adjourn this court session,” before gathering her things to leave.Judge Paul Metzger warned her, saying she could be held in contempt, but Alexy complained of two abscess teeth and a blocked nose and said she needed a doctor.When Metzger invited her to “have a seat,” Alexy replied, “I can’t,” and left.The 58 prospective jurors were silent.Prosecutor Tony Hershey asked to hold Alexy in contempt and to carry on with the trial with her “in absentia.”Judge Metzger decided to proceed with the trial after Alexy left, saying the burden of proof was on the prosecution and Alexy didn’t need to present a case, testify or call witnesses and that she “made a choice” to leave.”I’ve been a lawyer a long time, but I’ve never had a case where the defendant left,”Hershey said later. Hershey, a former Aspen City councilman, had been working on Alexy’s case for over a year and said a number of court and civil agencies have tried to help her, but she insists on camping on public lands.The court discussed Alexy’s competency before the trial, Hershey said, and court officials said they believe Alexy has undergone some psychological evaluation in the past, but could offer no specifics.Renegade camper”Despite repeated warnings and attempts to find her some place else to live she has chosen to stay there,” Hershey said in his opening statement. He asked the jury to prove one thing: Did she camp on open space in violation of a county ordinance?A jury of three heard testimony from members of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, citing Alexy’s history at the Hunter Creek campsite and their many attempts to help her, as well as warnings, citations and later warrants.”Hunter Creek has been described as the city of Aspen’s backyard,” said Dale Will, director of Open Space and Trails. And the Lani White Trail area provides up to 150 people each day in summer access to “large tracts of national forest.”Keith Berglund is a ranger for the Open Space and Trails program and has been handling Alexy’s case as a priority since he started in 2003.Illegal camping is a problem in the spring, he testified, when people come from other areas to work construction jobs, and he usually leaves a note or a warning on a site and that is enough. And when he issues citations to campers, most pay up or come to court. “She didn’t do either,” he said. So Berglund continued writing her up, and described the circumstances of all the five incidents, beginning in Dec. 2005, when he issued citations to Alexy.”I’ve been dealing with this issue for a long time,” Hershey said in conclusion, as a gentle flurry of snow fell outside the courthouse. And despite his and his witnesses sympathy for Alexy, he asked the jury to find Alexy guilty of violating camping laws.After the verdict, and because Alexy was absent from the court, Hershey asked the judge to issue a warrant for her arrest.Instead, the judge asked the prosecution to serve Alexy a summons to appear at a pre-sentencing hearing March 9. The judge has taken the issue of Alexy’s contempt of court under advisement.Alexy faces a possible $1,000 fine and up to 90 days in jail for each of the five counts.Jury reactionIn the wake of the widely-publicized Taser incident in 2006, in which an Aspen police officer lost her job, court officials called a jury pool of over 100 “because of the nature of the trial” according to Hans Jessup, clerk of courts.The group of initial jurors expressed their concerns over conducting a hearing with an empty defense table – empty but for a court-issued copy of the Bible.”Without hearing her side of it, I don’t see how I can be fair and impartial,” one potential juror said.Jurors later admitted they were sympathetic to Alexy, saying she deserved better than to sleep out in the cold, but in the end heard enough evidence and found Alexy guilty of illegal camping on county open space.”It was very difficult to be part of that,” said Shelli Craig, the jury’s foreperson.Craig was concerned there was no defendant or counsel present, but said witnesses were fair and applied the law.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
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