The signs in hindsight
Defense moves for mistrial on day five of murder trial
On the fifth day of Zackery Bassett’s first-degree murder trial, several witnesses testified to the instances of domestic abuse they witnessed with victim Andrea Sokolowski throughout their relationship and in the days leading up to her death.
Accounts from acquaintances describing the times they tried to shield Sokolowski from Bassett at a bar and the couple’s landlord describing broken property at their Second Street apartment in Webster City were quickly dwarfed by death threats, overt instances of physical assault and observations so strong that the defense once motioned for a mistrial.
Bassett faces the charge after girlfriend Andrea Sokolowski was reported as unresponsive in their apartment. She was pronounced dead at age 50 at Van Diest Medical Center after paramedics and medical personnel exhausted resuscitation efforts
Even before the couple moved to Webster City with Bassett’s job as a traveling welder, Sokolowski’s best friend for 17 years described the relationship as “volatile” at best.
“There was a plastic bag with gatorade bottles,” said Jennifer Ernst, of Ida Grove. “He swung it around and hit her on the head. She had a huge knot and bruise on her head.”
Ernst said the damage didn’t stop with assaults, either, testifying that Sokolowski’s tires had been slashed on several occasions and that she went through multiple cell phones as each one was broken. At one point, she said Bassett left a voicemail threatening to kill both her and her friend.
The accounts ran parallel to what Ernst’s then husband, Jon Ernst, saw.
“(Sokolowski) had her back turned. He went behind her and threw her on the ground,” he said of one altercation.
In a later conversation near Sokolowski’s hometown of Sioux City, Jon Ernst recounted a chilling conversation with the victim in which she was trying to find new living arrangements.
“Why did (Sokolowski) tell you she couldn’t go back (to living with Bassett)?” asked Assistant Attorney General Nicole Leonard.
“She told me he’d kill her,” Jon Ernst said of the conversation, three weeks before the victim died.
The defense disputed Jennifer Ernst’s claims on cross examination as vendettas in her self-proclaimed hatred of Bassett and highlighted potential credibility issues, citing a prior theft conviction.
They also attempted to impeach the victim, asking witnesses to weigh in on questions insinuating that she was known to exaggerate, which witnesses resisted on the stand. The cross examinations were the defense’s first shot at the strategy, highlighted in previous conversations away from the jury with Sokolowski’s prior convictions of theft and filing a false police report.
At TK’s Bar in Webster City, even new acquaintances stepped in to protect Sokolowski from a man they perceived as abusive when Bassett repeatedly attempted to pull her home by the arm.
Bartender Raenna Ewing, meeting the victim that was scheduled to start working there the following week, said she put Sokolowski to work behind the bar the first night they met simply to get her away from Bassett. She instructed a regular at the bar and a DJ that night to ensure Sokolowski and Bassett were never alone together.
“I hope he doesn’t beat me tonight,” Ewing recalled Sokolowski saying that night, to which the defendant laughed in the courtroom.
The statement, struck from the record, was one the jury was instructed to disregard after backroom conversations between attorneys carefully attempted to strike a balance that would allow witnesses to attest to Sokolowski’s state of mind, an exception to hearsay statements, without unfairly prejudicing the jury against the defendant.
“That was intentional,” defense attorney Paul Rounds whispered to co-counsel Michelle Wolf after the witness’ statement, before objecting to what they said were underhanded state tactics out of the jury’s presence.
But that wasn’t the only bell the defense could not unring, despite their best attempts.
“(Sokolowski) said just that she didn’t want her stuff to be burned again,” Ewing said seconds later in her testimony before the defense promptly interrupted the direct examination to voice more objections privately.
But this time, the objections turned into a motion.
“The court directed the state to warn the witness about this exact statement, burning property,” Wolf said, moving for a mistrial declaration. “Instead, what happened is the state asked the same question over and over trying to get more information. … The state was put on notice that this was an objectionable answer but still elicited it from this.”
District Court Judge Amy Moore denied the motion, saying she didn’t believe it was deliberate and that evidence of property destruction and physical assault were already available elsewhere in the record for the jury’s consideration.
Earlier in the day, the state introduced evidence of a protection order between Bassett and Sokolowski, one remnant from Bassett’s domestic abuse assault conviction they were allowed to admit.
Tying one loose end from state witness testimony last week, a McFarland Clinic physician assistant who examined Sokowloski weeks before she died noted that the victim’s only documented allergy was penicillin — a simple piece of knowledge that could be key for the jury in reconciling other possible contributors to her death.
Nurse Practitioner Jeremy Waldo, the attending medical provider at Van Diest Medical Center who examined Sokolowski the night she died, said that the victim’s airway was one of the most swollen ones he had seen in 20 years of practice. The only things he said could cause that would be trauma or an allergic reaction.
Her neck was swollen to the point that medical providers were unable to fully intubate her during resuscitation efforts, witnesses told the jury.
Jurors will soon see the state medical examiner’s autopsy report, which notes pinpoint hemorrhaging on Sokolowski’s face — a symptom that can be a sign of strangulation.