Martzen murder case ends with mistrial; prosecution was weak, jurors say
Reedley baby sitter Megan Martzen, whose trial for the death of a toddler ended Thursday with a hung jury, may have to go through a second murder and child abuse trial.
Prosecutor Jeff Dupras said that his office will retry the case.
A Fresno County jury of seven women and five men could not reach a unanimous verdict on the two charges that Martzen faced in the death of 17-month-old Ella VanLeeuwen.
After the mistrial was announced, Dupras and Martzen’s attorney, Jeff Hammerschmidt, spoke privately with 10 jurors for more than an hour. Afterward, Hammerschmidt told reporters that one juror said the prosecution’s case was like “Swiss cheese — it had a lot of holes in it.”
The panel voted 10-2 for not guilty on the charge of second-degree murder and 8-4 for not guilty on the charge of child abuse causing death. If convicted of second-degree murder, Martzen faced 15 years to life in prison. The child abuse charge carries a penalty of 25 years to life.
The jury also voted 6-6 on an involuntary manslaughter charge, a vote they weren’t supposed to take.
After jurors said Thursday for the second straight day that they remained deadlocked, Superior Court Judge Edward Sarkisian declared a mistrial and dismissed the panel.
The jury foreman told the judge that jurors took two votes Thursday morning after four or five votes on Wednesday resulted in 10 votes to acquit on the murder charge and seven votes to acquit on the child abuse charge.
Dupras told Ella’s family before the jury count was known that he would retry Martzen. He also repeated his plans in open court Thursday afternoon.
Hammerschmidt said the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office should reconsider, since two-thirds of the jury believed Martzen didn’t intentionally harm Ella.
“Sometimes people just need some time to reflect,” Hammerschmidt said. “Hopefully, they will come back and do the right thing.”
A March 7 status hearing was set, at which more information may be provided about prosecutors’ plans for the case.
Jurors told Hammerschmidt that the 6-6 involuntary manslaughter vote was closer to conviction than the other charges because some jurors thought Ella should not have been on a bed while Martzen sat on the bed and worked on her laptop computer. Martzen said Ella was injured in a fall from the bed when Martzen shifted her position.
But jurors were not supposed to vote on involuntary manslaughter unless they returned a unanimous innocent verdict on the murder count, he said.
It was likely an oversight by jurors, who had 40 minutes of instructions to follow, he said.
April Roque, Martzen’s mother, said she was grateful that most of the jurors found her daughter innocent.
“We are thankful for the support we have been shown and continue to receive,” she said. “But I am disappointed the District Attorney’s office would even mention moving forward with it. If they choose to do so, we will just continue pressing on.”
She said her family also is upset about Ella’s death.
“Our hearts hurt for their family’s loss; Megan loved Ella so very much,” Roque said. “We hurt for their family because I can’t even imagine losing a child.”
Observer: Prosecutor should try for plea deal
One legal observer, Fresno attorney Gerald Schwab Jr., who was not part of Martzen’s defense team but observed testimony in the four-week trial, said prosecutors should seek a plea agreement that gives them a felony conviction but allows Martzen to be sentenced to probation.
“The jury clearly said murder and child abuse causing death are off the table,” Schwab said. “And manslaughter was split dead even, so you can retry this two, three or four times and you’re never going to get a guilty or not guilty verdict.”
The case is difficult for any jury, said Schwab, a former Merced County prosecutor, because Dupras and Hammerschmidt, himself a former Fresno County prosecutor, are evenly matched.
“They will fight for every point being contested,” he said.
In addition, Martzen is an unlikely defendant, Schwab said. “She’s not a gang-banger and she’s never been in trouble before. She also did well on the witness stand. It’s going to be tough for the prosecution to convict her.”
The VanLeeuwen family left the courthouse without comment. The Martzen family stayed in the courtroom and let Hammerschmidt serve as a family spokesman.
“Eight jurors said they believed Megan was innocent because they believed she did not intentionally injure Ella at any point,” Hammerschmidt said.
“Every single juror we talked to said there was no chance of getting a guilty verdict.”
Four jurors talk about what swayed them
Four of the 10 jurors who voted for Martzen’s acquittal gave reporters insight into their decision.
Inside the jury room the discussion got heated, said juror Jennifer Aleman.
“There was a strong group that thought she was totally innocent and a strong group that thought she was guilty,” Aleman said.
She said defense experts and their witnesses proved to her that Ella had other injuries that occurred before Martzen baby-sat her on Feb. 20, 2009. She said she felt the fall from Martzen’s bed was not the first blow to the child’s head.
Another convincing issue, Aleman said, was evidence of injuries confined to a small area of Ella’s rib cage. Defense witnesses said that if Ella was struck there, bruising would have spread, but it had not. “A punch would have shown surrounding injuries,” Aleman said.
In her vote for acquittal, Annette Rodriguez said the prosecution had “no smoking gun” that proved Martzen intentionally harmed Ella.
“When you really look down to it,” she said, “there really was no proof.”
She also said the VanLeeuwens’ testimony conflicted and wasn’t helpful for the prosecution. “I would tell them to ‘get your story straight,’ ” she said. “It was a lot of contradictory” information.
She and Aleman said one juror believed Martzen was guilty and never swayed. Other jurors felt Martzen was negligent, she said.
Juror Petra Kubath of Fresno said the evidence didn’t prove that Martzen intentionally harmed Ella. “If this was a case where it was child endangerment, it would have been different,” she said.
Juror Laura Hicks of Clovis said the prosecution wanted a conviction based on speculation.
“That’s not enough to convict a person,” she said.
Hicks said she felt sorry for Ella’s family.
“We will never know and they will never know what happened to that beautiful child,” she said.
By Marc Benjamin and Pablo Lopez