Tyler Elza was shocked when his jury took only an hour to tell him he was a woman-beating son of a bitch.
Elza couldn't believe it. Hell, the woman had just told the jury that he was innocent. How was it possible that the jury didn't believe her or him?
But Reesa Shaffer had first told the police that Tyler Elza had grabbed her by the hair as she tried to run away from him, thrown her to the floor, choked her to the point of blacking out, and threatened her life.
That was then, now was now. In court, she said she hadn’t been hurt, it was all her fault, that she'd lied. It had happened the way she said it had happened a few minutes after it had happened.
It was a job well-done for the prosecutor, Deputy DA Jessa Lee Mills, recently promoted from traffic court to wife beaters. The Elza matter was the first domestic violence case the district attorney had taken to trial since 2010. Why? The victim in these low-life love sagas frequently goes over to the other side, denies the abuse, takes the blame, lies for lover boy.
The lies Ms. Schaffer told on the stand, under oath, came as no surprise to prosecutor Mills. She had been aware before the trial began that her witness had “gone south,” had turned on her, but it was all still pretty embarrassing.
“So, Ms. Schaffer,” public defender Charles Oshinuga said, “If you were really being choked out — to the point of blacking out, as you said you were — wouldn’t there be some signs of bruising on your neck in these photographs taken by the officer?”
“Yes, yes there would be,” Schaffer eagerly replied.
“But in fact there is no bruising visible in these photographs, is there?”
“Well, no; no, there isn’t.”
“And if Tyler grabbed you by the back of the head and threw you to the ground, as you said he did, wouldn’t there be hair missing?”
“Well, yes, I suppose there would…all I remember is going to the ground.”
“And when the officer asked if you wanted to go to the hospital, you refused, correct?”
“And if you were really dragged down by the back of the head and choked out, wouldn’t you have wanted to go?”
“Well, yes, I would.”
“Nothing further, at this time.”
Prosecutor Mills began, “When you told your story the first time to the officer, Deputy Elmore, did you go through the whole story?”
“I don’t remember. I guess I’d have to go back through the transcript and see.”
“I see. And when Deputy Elmore first contacted you, do you remember what your demeanor was like?”
“I guess I was somewhat upset and irrational.”
“Were you shaking?”
“Do you remember how long the interview lasted?”
“I didn’t have a good idea of time.”
“When Mr. Oshinuga asked about your being dragged to the ground, you tried to characterize it as ‘going’ to the ground, whereas you told the officer that Tyler threw you to the ground. Which was it?”
“I guess I don’t understand the question. I was trying to say that going to the ground was my responsibility. Had it been otherwise, it would have been somebody else’s.”
“You said the first time the defendant grabbed you by the hair and threw you to the ground — does that mean the same thing as ‘went to the ground’?”
“Objection, your honor. That’s been asked and answered.”
“You did tell the officer that the defendant said it would be a whole lot easier if you were dead, didn’t you?”
“Yes, but I was upset and irrational and he [Elza] was just trying to calm me down.”
“But wasn’t he was choking you on the ground and screaming in your face?”
“Yes, but I slapped him in the face.”
“After you slapped him in the face he grabbed you and threw you to the ground?”
“No. He grabbed my hair and we fell to the ground.”
“So you slapped him while you were in the garage? I thought you said you slapped him when you were in the kitchen?”
“I don’t believe so. My hand made contact with his face twice.”
“Didn’t you tell the investigator that you stomped on his foot?”
“I don’t remember saying that. I stepped back and injured his foot is all.”
“Didn’t I ask you this morning on direct if anything else happened?”
“And you never mentioned stomping on his foot?”
“Isn’t it true that you are lying?”
“No, I’m being truthful.”
“But you told the investigator [Mr. McCarty, who works for the Office of the Public Defender] that you hadn’t slapped him. Why?”
“I was afraid of going to jail myself, and I didn’t feel it was important to tell him [McCarty] that.”
“You didn’t feel it was important to tell the investigator the truth?”
“I didn’t know who the investigator worked for.” “Would you have told the investigator the truth if you knew he worked for the defense?”
“I didn’t know there was a difference.”
“But you told the investigator that Tyler bear-hugged you, and you fell to the ground, didn’t you?”
“I don’t remember what I said to the investigator that day. I just know I was trying to make myself look as least guilty as possible.”
“So you lied to the investigator.”
“I’m not certain…”
“And you lied to Deputy Elmore.”
“And you are lying today.”
Deputy James Elmore was called. Most police officers will admit that domestic disturbance calls are about the worst thing they can get called out on. They can be attacked by the victim and the attacker. Then, in court, the victim often lies, as was happening here.
Deputy Elmore said that things were happening so fast that he’d made a quick decision to believe that Elza had attacked Ms. Schaffer, and that his partner-cop had gone after Elza, leaving Elmore alone with Ms. Schaffer.
Public Defender Oshinuga tried to capitalize on Elmore’s hasty decision to assume that Elza had attacked Ms. Schaffer.
“So you had already decided whose story you were going to believe, from the outset?”
“No,” Elmore said. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Well, that’s what you just said on direct. Let me read it back to you: 'Things were happening so fast I made a quick decision that she’d been attacked'.”
Deputy Elmore blinked his eyes a few times. A long pause ensued as the deputy saw the trap the lawyer had caught him in. As the silence lengthened, Judge Behnke said, “Is that a question?”
“Yes, your honor: You had already made a decision as to who you were going to believe, correct?”
Another long pause, then Elmore said, “It’s not a simple yes or no question.”
“You had already decided who to believe — yes or no?”
Another long pause, as the deputy squirmed on the stand.
Oshinuga said, “Your Honor, I would ask the court that the witness be ordered to answer yes or no.”
Judge Behnke said, “Actually, it’s not about what the officer thought or who he believed; that’s a question the jury will ultimately have to answer. I’ll add that as an instruction to the jury, if you wish, Mr. Oshinuga.”
“I do, Your Honor.”
“Consider it done. I think the jury got it.”
The jurors nodded assent. They got it and then some.
The jury began deliberations, and soon said that they wanted to hear the taped interviews a second time.
The tape between Deputy Elmore and Ms. Schaffer played first. It was a tearful monologue with Schaffer saying between sniffles that she knew “Tyler needs to be fixed, there’s something wrong with him…”
Elmore asked for clarification.
“No, not physically,” Shaffer said. “But he has issues and needs counseling.”
She described the attack as frightening, and said she thought she was going to be killed, then broke down crying. She apologized for her tears before resuming. “He was screaming at me the whole time that he was just going to go ahead and kill me. I’d never been choked out before, but everything was going black. I was on my back with his hands on my neck…” Schaffer choked on a sob, then in a high, trembling voice, “He grabbed me by the back of my hair and I was down and he was screaming in my face…” More sobbing… “I told him he needed to leave and I was going to call the police… Then I don’t know where he was but he must have pulled the wires to the phone, there was no dial tone. But I’m not sure what he did cause as soon as I picked up the phone again it was working. I put a bag of his things out and called you guys.”
Another tape was played. Again, it was Elmore and Schaffer:
“You say your earring got ripped out?”
“Let me take a picture of that [click]. And one of your neck [click]. Any bruises?”
“Yes. [click]. And these scratches, here [click]. There’s more bruises on my right thigh… lemme pull up my skirt… see this? [click].
“Show me where he first grabbed you.”
“Right over there.”
“He came this way?”
“Umm, yeah. I went down right here, then over there.”
“So he took you to the ground four times, total?”
“Was he using any drugs?”
“I can’t attest to that, but there’s a possibility.”
“Do you want an emergency protective order?”
“Yes. How long will it last?”
“Well, my partner’s going to arrest him now, and I don’t know what the judge will do, so he could bail, but the emergency order lasts five days and that’ll give you time to get a longer one. How long have you been together?”
“About a year.”
“Has he put his hands on you before?”
“How many times?”
“I don’t know… anywhere from five to seven times, I think.”
“Did you call us and report it?”
“Can I use this phone to call the judge for the protective order?”
“Yes, it works now.”
The next tape was between another officer and Elza:
“Tyler, you are under arrest. You have the right to remain silent. You wanna talk to me?”
“Yeah. I didn’t want any kinda shit to happen… it all got escalated so fast. I hugged her and she bit me on the shoulder. I was trying to get away from her. We were talking — yelling, really — and got all worked up.”
“What happened in the garage?”
“I tried to hug her.”
“How did she end up on the ground?”
“Well, we fuckin’ tripped over the chainsaw. I said, Just chill the fuck out — stop flailin’ around and fuckin’ being way over the — what’s the word for it?”
“Nah, not that, but yeah. She kept screaming and yelling and I got upset again. She came at me and I tried to shut the door — it’s hard to explain… I got all worked up… I didn’t wanna hit or fuckin’ smack her…”
“You didn’t throw her to the ground by her hair?”
“Nah — I was upset is all.”
“So you weren’t choking her and saying you’d kill her?”
“Nah, I just wanted to go home and relax with my dad, have some dinner and not have to deal with this.”
The last tape was brief.
“So how did she bite your arm?”
“I don’t know. I was so worked up.”
“It looks like that’s where she’d bite you if you were choking her.”
“Hey, I been fighting to get the fuckin’ chick to love me — who does that?”
The jury was out for sixty-three minutes before they came back with a guilty verdict on count one, corporal injury to a spouse, and guilty on count two, making criminal threats.
It had been an uphill battle, but Mr. Elza had gotten the fuckin' chick to love him, but not enough to keep him out of jail.