Silencing the bells
Defense sows doubts as state witnesses continue
As state witnesses described the warning signs of domestic abuse leading up to Andrea Sokolowski’s death, the defense attempted to disparage the credibility of key witnesses and the victim herself through conversations in front of the jury and out of their presence.
Conversations showed that one strong witness for the state, Sokolowski’s ex-husband, could potentially be an achilles heal for their first-degree murder case against Zackery Bassett, who is accused of killing his girlfriend.
“(Bassett) began in a practice where he would pin her down, muffle her face and restrict her ability to breathe to the point where she would become unconscious,” said Assistant Attorney General Nicole Leonard to the judge, previewing testimony to help her decide what should be heard in front of the jury and how. “This was happening at least once a week while they were fighting.”
After hearing attorney arguments for what they should be allowed to fairly introduce per evidence rules, District Court Judge Amy Moore said she would have a decision by morning.
“We’re going to avoid all unringable bells,” she told counsel Tuesday — statements that would not be legally allowed for the jury’s consideration but would be too late to strike from their minds if spoken by witnesses.
Ex-husband Aaron Sokolowski, who was married to Andrea for 17 years but stayed in touch throughout her relationship with Bassett, told attorneys she often cried when telling him about the regular occurrences of losing consciousness. Their last contact was two days before Andrea died.
“Everything was escalating and getting worse,” he said towards the end of a relationship he described as “toxic.”
He supported her financially throughout the relationship by fixing slashed tires on her car, covering dental work for a tooth broken during an alleged fight with Bassett and paying for hotels when she needed a place to stay.
The judge will soon determine how much of his testimony, including a photo of her swollen face in a text that read “he beat me up for the last time” and multiple observations of injuries during her relationship with Bassett, will be allowed in front of the jury without unfairly prejudicing them against the defendant.
Injuries described by witnesses included a black eye, a broken collarbone, broken teeth and bruises.
“We don’t know the cause of those injuries,” said defense attorney Michelle Wolf. “If we allow (witnesses) to talk about them, they’ll speculate that Zack is the cause, when we lack proof he’s the cause.”
With the defense, the ex-husband was forced to pore through an affidavit he signed for their divorce, telling the court that Sokolowski falsely accused him of domestic abuse six to eight times. That could be a lifeline to the defense working to mitigate observations of domestic abuse that the state is trying to tie to Bassett. That file from the divorce was never included in state investigative files on the Bassett case.
In addition to a 2003 conviction for filing a false police report, the defense would like to admit as evidence Andrea Sokolowski’s convictions for theft and a felony third offense operating while intoxicated to show a pattern of dishonesty.
On a preview cross examination away from the jury, her ex-husband testified that she had relapsed with drug use before her death. In addition to evidence of drug use, the defense would like the jury to know that the victim was a heavy drinker — not as a matter of character evidence, they say, but as a matter of mitigating the state’s attempt through a previous witness to show she was healthy before she suddenly died.
“The state has to prove how Ms. Sokolowski died,” said Wolf. “These things can contribute to an early death. … I don’t think (state attorneys) get to paint that picture and not allow us to get into the truth of the matter.”
Testimony from a physician assistant who examined her weeks before her death in September 2018, they said, was based on false health history information provided.
Jared Foster, the victim’s son, told the jury about the circumstances before and after her death that made him suspicious of Bassett, ultimately bringing it to the attention of a Webster City Police Department he said did nothing at first.
In the two years leading up to his mother’s death, Foster said he saw her four times and talked to her on the phone every month or two, watching bruises show up amid what seemed like constant troubles in her life.
“Why didn’t you let the police do the investigation?” asked Assistant Attorney General Keisha Cretsinger.
“I feel that they handled the case wrong from the beginning,” Foster said. “When she died, (Bassett) wasn’t even brought in for questioning. The no-contact order was not even talked about.”
Working on his own, Foster recorded conversations with Bassett after the death. In 2017, he conducted an experiment in which he called his mother’s cell phone, held in his own hand, from his own phone. The call was forwarded to Bassett’s phone.
The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigations was not invited to investigate the case until early November, well over a month after the victim died — unusual timing, by Special Agent Jim Thiele’s own admission.
But the defense also highlighted what they believed were nefarious intentions on Foster’s part, too.
In a conversation on direct examination, Foster said he told Bassett about the funeral. By the end of cross examination, he was resisting direct quotes that defense attorneys characterized as discouragement to attend the funeral.
“I hate to say this to you, but I don’t know how many would want you at the funeral or not,” Foster said to Bassett. “If you don’t think it’s a good idea, I’m not going to hold it against you.”
After the funeral, Foster told the DCI and the state medical examiner he thought it was suspicious that Bassett did not attend.
At other times, witness testimony elicited by the state simply tried to show Andrea Sokolowski’s state of mind in the months leading up to her death.
“She seemed to be in fear,” said retired Eagle Grove Police Officer Wayne Boyd in front of the jury, describing an incident at the Sandman Motel in which the victim was injured.
That interpretation, struck from the record after going beyond a basic description of her demeanor, was one chime the jury was not allowed to hear.