John Kristoffer Larsgard, a Norwegian young man, lately living in the United States. Liv Larsgard, his mother, a nursing home nurse in Oslo. Myself, an American attorney living and working in Norway, also assisting and commenting on cultural and legal issues of interest and note. And John, now and for several months, sitting in a prison in Arizona, and recently convicted after over a week-long trial.
I was asked by John’s mother, Liv Larsgard, to assist her. We’ve spoken on the phone on more than one occasion at length and she recently sent me portions of the court transcript in the case. She would like me to help her to get what is arguably also her story out to the public, in English, and, if I would like to do that, to comment on the legal merits of the case, on its problems and issues it seems to raise, as I deem appropriate.
So here we go, dear American and global Reader, as we look into what appears to be a classic example of how not to be the land of the free and the home of the brave. As well, how not to present criminal evidence in a jury trial. And we can also get to the rather long list of international human rights which have been broken with impunity later. First, let us simply look together at what has happened here. Let me whet your appetite. Here are some versions of headlines I could write, none of which is without some truth:
• Norwegian thrown in jail for messing up a three-point turn in unfamiliar rental car
• Norwegian punched in nose for going wrong way on poorly marked one-way street and trying to flee attackers
• Batterer goes free - Victim gets years in prison
• Norwegian with neck disability refused his medicine while held in solitary confinement
• Norwegian guilty of bad driving held in steel hand and foot chains at all times out of cell
• Norwegian punched to the floor and neck stomped on by other prisoner for doing nothing
• Norwegian with history of being mobbed in Norway finally mobbed to near-death in Arizona
• Lack of social skills becomes criminal intent in Arizona when non-Americans show up
• Need help? Don’t stop in Winslow, Arizona. Especially if you’ve never been there
• Beer-happy festival crowd turns on foreigners for lack of American communication skills
• Foreigner drives wildly as reaction to attacking public . . . who over-reacted to his unfamiliarity
• Local prison needs prisoners after losing federal contract: Find foreigners fast and lock ‘em up
• A slam-dunk into prison means protecting local jobs - Now that’s a priority.
• Hearsay evidence illegal since 17th century – but not in Winslow, Arizona
Let’s begin with the exclusive coverage prepared and published in VG, one of Norway’s largest daily newspapers and most read. The coverage is by Eirik Mosveen, a veteran reporter stationed in New York. The paper has availability online for those interested in reading the Norwegian story portions. I don’t cover all the aspects, but I will summarize some of the written coverage as the story has just broken here. By doing that, I will primarily present it from the perspective from which it is reported - by a Norwegian reporter, to the Norwegian population in Norway. For me, it is a sign of respect, and also, like many Americans here, will ‘ring true’ with respect to our own education as to the differences between our two cultures. It may also be enlightening for those who should develop a professional interest in this case, and who have the ability and position to influence what should now occur and how that can be effected. In general, it’s interesting because it points up what people think they know about how they should perceive others’ actions. It also highlights how persons use the law and legal system, themselves, through their different roles within the criminal justice ‘sub-culture’ of this American rural county. We can analyze those cultural and legal differences in later entries. Now to the core story.
VG’s coverage began Monday, April 23, 2012: There was just a mother and son in the car that drove onto a deserted motorway through Arizona’s desert on a warm and peaceful Saturday. Then all hell broke loose. For seven months, John Kristoffer Larsgard, 32, has sat in jail in Navajo County Jail, mainly in solitary, with foot links and handcuffs. What happened on September 24 (2011) isn’t taken from an American B-film. It’s hard reality. On March 29th he was found guilty of so-called “aggravated assault” for trying to cause harm using a deadly weapon – against 6 Americans, 2 of them small children. The weapon, according to the judgment, was the rental car rented by his mother Liv, and the son drove it that ill-fated day. Tomorrow, the sentencing comes, at which the Norwegian risks being sentenced to a minimum of 5 years in prison, while he fears he could get 35 years.
Liv was driving her son’s Volvo as they made their way from Los Angeles to Chicago, and John was half-sleeping in the passenger seat. Suddenly, a red light on the dash began to blink. They decided to get off at the next exit to check it out. At that exit, Liv became confused as to how to proceed and ended up crossing into a median area which was full of un-noticeable rocks. There, the Volvo bottomed out and its under-carriage was substantially damaged. They therefore needed a rental car to continue their trip. The taxi driver that came to assist them drove them to Flagstaff where they rented a car and then returned to the Winslow area to find their baggage. Note that since the Volvo had been towed, and there were no rental agencies in Winslow, they had not been into the town before and were now entering it to find their luggage so they could continue their journey north and east. Now, John is driving. They are to find their auto at Dalton Auto Parts.
On this day, there is a large local music festival. They accidentally turn the wrong way down a one-way street, which causes onlookers to react. John is driving slowly, but some call to him that it is a one-way street. He tries to yell something back at those who are yelling at him, mainly a mother standing on the sidewalk. Liv is very anxious now and begs him to turn around and get them out of there. When John goes to execute a three-point turn, he runs over the curb behind him, scaring the persons hanging out in front of a store. Here is the woman with two children who claims he screamed at her, “I will kill you” before he executes the three-point turn. Note that another witness heard him say, “I will sneak through.”
Reader, I must digress here, on cross-cultural language usage and pronunciation. Have you heard a Norwegian say, “I will kill you” and “I will sneak through”? Do you realize that they don’t sound very different from each other? Do you know that the Norwegian language doesn’t do the ‘th’ sound very well – most of their consonants are sharper and more distinct. And they don’t do the ‘ough’ sound in ‘through’ very well either: most of their o’s are longer and deeper ooooo’s. In addition, all their i’s are e’s: they don’t have the short ‘i’ sound very much in the language: first, the ‘i’ is always pronounced as “ee” is in English. When they ‘will,’ they say, ‘veeel’.
Now, reader, another digression. When you have found yourself going the wrong way on a one-way street, what do you do? If it is safe to do so, you do as I have done: you sneak through to the next turn and get off of it. If no or few cars are seen, street direction can be under-signed. In many cases, sneaking forward to the next turn would be less disruptive and more ‘friendly’ than stopping and executing a three-point turn. So, it makes perfect sense that John was trying to tell the lady that he would try to sneak through, as he slowly proceeded, even if she heard something else instead, not recognizing his foreign accented English in the same way she would understand her western American English. Who said he said, “I will sneak through”? A young dental assistant who, presumably, has perfect hearing, who also testified at the, er, seven day trial.
And what does the prosecutor do with little lady number one’s statement? Well, of course, he offers it in testimony for, um, intent? To kill people? After all, he has to find an exception to the hearsay rule or he can’t get that assertion into evidence. Why? Because, the fact that this little lady swears under oath that she heard him say, “I will kill you” doesn’t mean he said that, and it also doesn’t mean one can accept that statement for the truth of the matter asserted. As every first year law student knows, hearsay is evidence which depends on the credibility of someone who cannot be cross-examined for its probative value (Goldberg). In other words, when little lady one says she heard him say, “I will kill you,” who are we to say she did not hear him say that? This is why HEARSAY IS NOT ADMISSIBLE FOR THE PURPOSE OF PROVING THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER ASSERTED. Of course, there are many exceptions to the hearsay rule. However, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you keep a little lady on the stand repeating and repeating that he said “I will kill you,” and then everyone around her decides that must’ve been what the guy said, and they further testify to the same, (except for the lady who testified that he clearly said, “I will sneak through”), and then you have a situation where the jury is asked to find that this fellow intentionally set about hurting people in the town, and what will they find? It’s almost a Catch-22: you get the jury to answer only the question you ask them – and definitely not the question you should have asked them. Figure this one out.
Back to VG’s coverage. John manages to turn around and is trying to both flee people running after him who are angry, but basically find his luggage so they can leave town. In particular, the father of the children on the sidewalk is running after the car, angry as can be. John doesn’t see him, but pulls into the parking lot nearby while they hope to get their luggage. The car becomes surrounded and, coming from behind, John is smashed in the nose through the open driver’s window. The father who crushed his nose is rushing back while John’s blood is spurting profusely all over the unfamiliar rental car interior. Still, he is afraid to get out of the car.
Both John and Liv manage to call 911. Immediately, about 10 police arrive. Ten? It has been 6 ½ minutes since they began to drive the wrong way down a one-way street in Winslow, Arizona.
Criss Candaleria, John’s attorney, tells VG, (in my translation from the Norwegian paper), “This is really an embarrassing case. It should have been dropped from Day One. There isn’t even one shred of evidence in the case that John intended to kill someone in the course of those 6 ½ minutes, in a town he had never been in before. The police didn’t even assign one investigator to it. The witnesses were angry, and the police and the court chose to believe the witnesses’ version, namely that he was trying to hurt and kill these people. If he was trying to kill them, why would he call the police and tell them where he was? The case is completely illogical. Therefore, I’ve asked for a new trial.”
None of the witnesses contacted would talk to the VG reporter who was in town requesting it, although everyone knows that ‘there was a foreigner here last year who drove like a crazy man and tried to hurt and kill folks.’
Eirik Mosveen was able to talk to John at the Navajo County Jail, which is in Holbrook, Arizona. John says, (in my English translation), “I’ve got no connection with Arizona, other than that my mother and I drove along I-40. For me, it’s as if we’ve been taken in a highway robbery.” (John is in solitary confinement.) Further, “The treatment I am getting here in jail is based on what I was arrested for. It’s pretty bad right now. I’m getting out of my cell 3 times each week, one hour each time, to take a shower and maybe read documents. Otherwise, I’m in the cell, which has a toilet, a sink and a mattress pad.” John is always in hand and foot links when he is out of his cell unless he is showering. John says, “It’s completely laughable. It’s because, according to them, I am the most dangerous prisoner in the entire county.” Eirik asks him what he thinks of this. John replies, “That it’s complete lunacy. It’s like a bad film, where you swing in and land on a deserted peninsula, filled with angry residents. Because I was charged with trying to hurt children, many of the jail staff have treated me very badly, despite the fact that that charge was dropped. I’m like their mass murderer, the unfortunate mass murderer since, under the circumstances, no one was hurt.” Eirik and John continue their discussion of what seems to have been a completely insane description of what in fact occurred. John then adds, “What I’ve learned for myself at this place is that, here, anything can happen.” When asked if he had been there before, John replies, “No, I’d never heard of the place, and if I had, I would have thought it was a new data virus by Windows,” he says and smiles.
Alright, Reader, here we take another break. Do you have to love this guy? No, but I think his cynical sense of humor may be helping him stay alive. And he’s definitely not stupid. Can we see why driving a bit wildly might ‘piss people off’? Yes. Can we understand why he was trying to get out of the wrong-way predicament he was in, while women were screaming at him to turn around? Yes. Can we understand that we also don’t have to ‘like’ him to see that the type of treatment he has gotten has gone way way beyond the reasonable? Yes. Might he have exacerbated the bad-driver side in response to provocations from persons attacking the car? Quite possibly, but so. Can we understand that it would have been appropriate to cite him for traffic violations? Yes. When someone runs at your car, and brushes against it intentionally while you are driving and you can’t see them, are you responsible for the fact that the car touched them? As a Chicagoan who has more than once watched pedestrians attack and damage cars in traffic, I’ll leave that question open. Did the car he was driving, while being chased, brush against someone? Yes. Are they responsible for putting themselves in harm’s way? Quite possibly. If they are on a sidewalk when the three-point turn fails, and the tire blows out on the curb, is this something you could have prevented when you had never driven that car until right then? No, not necessarily. Is it reasonable to think that this scared the persons on the sidewalk? Of course. Would the children be afraid? Of course. American response: Get offended (which is also considered smart) and get even. Norwegian response: Stop all action, calm down and exchange names and numbers. Is it reasonable for them to claim that he was trying intentionally to kill them? Based on the actual evidence, of course not. But in Winslow, Arizona, who cares about the evidence? Just ‘hang ‘em high’ as they say, right?
Eirik asks John what he thinks of the future. John replies, “I don’t know. I’m just trying to survive each day as it comes here.” When asked about his mother, John replies, “It’s not easy. Because she feels a large responsibility because it was she who crashed the car, and the reason we had to hang around here. She’s suffering with guilt feelings. In addition, she’s been here, away [from her work and Oslo] for long periods, and taken out vacation for two years in the future. She has gotten large economic problems [from this].
VG’s first day’s coverage ends with this information: In Winslow, Arizona, both the State’s Attorney and the judge in the case are publicly (popularly) elected and are political office holders, and 2012 is an election year. There is little doubt that many people in Winslow, which has about 6,000 residents, would like to see Larsgard sentenced to time. To let John free of a punishment ‘would not be especially popular.’
If you’re able to and interested, check VG’s story links. A video, entitled, “Her pågripes nordmannen,” was also posted at: http://www.vgtv.no/#!id=52059 but appears to have been withdrawn at this writing.
To be continued. By me and hopefully by other concerned and engaged professionals from our two countries.