Trial for Lipsey couple stemming from high school party set for December in Aspen
While a District Court judge set a two-week trial date Monday for a couple accused of allowing minors to drink alcohol at their Aspen-area home last year, the actual trial wasn’t the cause of his consternation.
“The jury calls will be the problem,” said Judge Chris Seldin, noting the regular publicity about the case in Aspen’s newspapers as well as the cloudy future of jury trials amid COVID-19 social-distancing restrictions.
Nonetheless, the judge moved the case forward at the urging of prosecutor Don Nottingham and scheduled trial for Joseph Lipsey III, 57, and Shira Lipsey, 45, to begin Nov. 30 and run through Dec. 14. The judge has joined together the cases against the couple for trial purposes.
The Lipseys each face 11 counts of felony contributing to the delinquency of a minor and three counts of misdemeanor providing alcohol to minors. Joseph Lipsey also faces an additional felony drug possession charge.
Prosecutors initially also charged both with one count of felony distribution of cocaine to a minor, a high-level felony with potential mandatory prison time, but the charge was later dropped.
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The charges stemmed from an early January 2019 party at the Lipsey home near Aspen Highlands.
On Monday, the judge set 10 days for trial, though Nottingham estimated he’d only need three days and Lipsey attorney Yale Galanter asked for five.
Both men, however, acknowledged that jury selection, when potential jurors are almost certain to be asked how much they know about the case from pre-trial publicity, is likely to take time. Galanter estimated the process could take a week or two.
In the end, Seldin drew the line at two weeks.
“Two weeks is about as much time as the court thinks is appropriate to set for this matter,” he said.
Seldin also scheduled a two-day motion hearing in October, when Galanter said he will subpoena witnesses to testify.
Monday’s hearing took place virtually, with the Lipseys, their attorneys and the judge all appearing by video conference that could be heard aloud in the Pitkin County District Courtroom. The only three people in the room were reporters for both daily newspapers and a court clerk. The Lipseys did not say a word aloud in court Monday.
At one point, Galanter asked Seldin if he’d heard when evidentiary hearings, jury trials and regular court dockets — most of which have been postponed indefinitely by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court because of virus concerns — might begin again. The judge said he hadn’t heard any news yet.
Pre-trial publicity in the case won’t be the only consideration during jury selection, however. Court officials likely also will have to deal with social-distancing protocols in a process that generally requires hundreds of candidates to be sent jury notices, show up at the courthouse, sit crowded together in the courtroom’s wooden pews and await their turn in front of attorneys.
Joseph Lipsey IV — the couple’s 20-year-old son — also was charged in connection with the January 2019 party. He pleaded guilty earlier this month to a misdemeanor in connection with the party and a felony in connection with a separate case, and will spend two years on probation.
Nottingham has not offered an explicit reason as to why he dropped the cocaine charge against Joseph and Shira Lipsey. Court records indicated a plate of cocaine, that eventually made its way to a 17-year-old, was being passed around their home.
In court in July when he announced the action, Nottingham told Seldin the “investigation has been somewhat stymied” and that he didn’t have the evidence to back up the distribution of cocaine to a minor charge. He later told a reporter that police and the DA’s Office did not err in the filing the distribution charges because evidence at the time indicated they were merited.
Later, however, investigators were unable to run down witnesses and verify details, Nottingham said.
Galanter praised Nottingham at the time for taking a second look at the charges, and said the dismissal “totally charges the complexion of the case.”
“When this case broke, all over the media was that the Lipseys are drug dealers,” he said in July. “They were looking at a minimum eight years in prison. Now they’re looking at probation.”
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