A man accused of brandishing a gun in a North Dakota courtroom was convicted Thursday of two counts of attempted murder involving the prosecutor and sheriff, but was acquitted on 12 other counts related to jurors.
Vicente Chacano, a Chilean native who was working in southwest North Dakota as a farmhand, was accused of taking the gun into the courthouse last year and trying to fire it after his conviction in a child molestation case. Witnesses said Chacano pulled the trigger several times, including directly at the chest of prosecutor Jonathan Byers, but the gun never fired. Byers and Sheriff Eugene Molbert helped subdue Chacano.
The case, along with an incident in Minnesota in which a prosecutor was shot and wounded, sparked demands for heightened security in small-town courthouses. Officials say only a handful of courthouses in the two states use metal detectors on a regular basis.
The attempted murder case was moved across the state to Fargo. At least four security personnel were in the courtroom Thursday when the verdicts were read. Chacano, dressed in a western shirt, jeans and cowboy boots, showed no emotion as an interpreter relayed the findings through his headphones. He was handcuffed after the result for the 14th count was read.
The incident last year happened after Chacano asked that each juror to confirm his or her verdict. According to witnesses, Chacano pulled out the 9 mm semi-automatic handgun seconds after a judge dismissed the jury.
Prosecutors said Thursday they weren't surprised the jury acquitted him of 12 counts of attempted murder. Prosecutors suspected it would be difficult for the jury to identify specific jurors who might have been targeted by Chacano. Many of the jurors in the first trial refused to talk with investigators.
"A lot of them were traumatized by that. They didn't want to relive the whole thing," prosecutor Jackson Lofgren told The Associated Press.
Chacano testified Wednesday that he forgot the weapon was in his pants when he went to court. He said he panicked when he realized he had the gun. He said he tried to leave the courtroom and blacked out.
Prosecutor Brian Grosinger said in his closing argument Wednesday that Chacano's explanation about the gun and the 38 bullets he was also carrying was beyond belief. "He didn't need all 38 to take care of Mr. Byers," Grosinger said.
Defense attorney Rob Quick told jurors the incident happened so fast that witnesses confused perception with reality. He said Chacano had no intent to hurt anybody.
"They jumped to the only conclusion they could think of in that setting," Quick said
Byers, an assistant state attorney general, sat through the attempted murder trial, including as audiotapes of the chaotic scene were replayed three times.
"It was especially tough in that I had never heard the audio recording of it before. Hearing that three times was a little harrowing," Byers said in an interview Thursday. "Enough time has passed so some of those emotions have had a chance to calm down. It's always different looking back at it knowing everybody's safe, as opposed to right at the time when the outcome was uncertain."
Byers said he's suffered no nightmares or loss of sleep, but admitted it took some time before he felt comfortable again in a courtroom.
Quick, a public defender, said afterward that the verdicts showed the jury did a thorough job at analyzing the evidence.
"I think Mr. Chacano understood the result," Quick said.