Juror Bethany Newill talks about the Ward Churchill trial
Bethany Newill was one of six jurors who determined the verdict in Ward Churchill's wrongful-termination lawsuit against the University of Colorado at Boulder. Earlier today, she shared her views and observations about the case with Westword, demonstrating the seriousness and thoughtfulness that went into the decision. She's passionate about the subject, even phoning the KHOW talk-show hosted by Dan Caplis and Craig Silverman yesterday afternoon, shortly after the jury's views were made known, in order to correct what she viewed as misinformation being propagaged by the pair.
"They were nice to me, but it was a little intense," Newill says of her time on the air, "because they started playing all the tape recordings that they felt [Patrick O'Rourke, CU's attorney] should have played at the trial." This audio didn't change her mind, however: "I told them, 'That's fine. We don't have to agree with what he says. But that's not what the trial was about.'"
A West Denver resident, Newill is 24-years old -- and she says the oldest of her fellow jurors was only 36. Some commentators thought the relative youth of this group might mean its members would have difficulty grasping the particulars of the arguments, which revolved around the question of whether Churchill was fired for academic misconduct, as CU claimed, or if he'd actually been sacked due to the controversy over an essay in which he compared victims of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center to notorious Nazi Adolf Eichmann. Newill, who'd never served on a jury before, admits that when the jurors saw each other for the first time, "we thought, well, it's a really young crowd." Still, she goes on, "they picked us, for whatever reason, and even thought it was a young crowd, it definitely wasn't a stupid crowd. We didn't have any problems understanding what was going on and what was being said."
Newill, who says she knew nothing about the Churchill brouhaha until jury selection, made particular note of differences between what witnesses said prior to the trial and their remarks on the witness stand. "We'd seen depositions of previous testimony, and we found that a lot of them contradicted themselves," she says. In her view, one of the people who most vigorously massaged his past statements was former Colorado governor Bill Owens. "He had gone on the Bill O'Reilly show and mentioned threatening the budget," she points out -- a reference to the prospect that Owens might cut CU's state funding if the university didn't give Churchill the heave-ho. "On the stand, he said that wasn't what he was doing, but that was clearly what I saw."
CU's O'Rourke spent day after day backing up the university's charges of plagiarism and other scholarly crimes against Churchill -- a presentation that press accounts characterized as boring, but which Newill describes as "pretty interesting." In the end, however, she wasn't entirely convinced that Churchill had committed sins against academia. "I definitely saw where [the university] was coming from on a few of them," she concedes -- but in other instances, "I thought they had really weak arguments. To me, it just seemed like the charges were trumped up. And even if all of those things were true, we didn't feel that was the reason for termination."
She also believes that several of the CU regents who voted to can Churchill sent mixed signals to the jury. According to her, some implied that they were merely following CU president Hank Brown's lead, while others suggested that their votes to oust Churchill were motivated in part by a determination of wrongdoing made by his fellow faculty members. However, she says, "The majority of faculty members didn't recommend that Churchill be fired. The majority recommended suspension or some other sort of discipline." Apparently, then, the regents "trusted the faculty's decision, but not their recommendation."
Attorney O'Rourke's closing argument left Newill figuratively scratching her head, too -- and not because he went soft on Churchill. "In part of it, he talked about the horrible things Churchill said in the 9/11 essay," she allows, "and I felt that definitely contradicted the reasons they said they fired him. They said he was fired for academic misconduct, but that made it clear to me that it was definitely motivated by the essay. I felt they were trying to get us upset with him about the things he said rather than focusing on the reasons they claimed had led to them firing him."
At first, Newill reveals, the jury thought part of their duty was to weigh in on the strength of CU's academic-misconduct evidence. Once they understood they only had to decide whether Churchill had been dismissed for Constitutionally protected speech, the six quickly agreed. But they had much more difficulty reaching a consensus on the damage amount. Newill says she and the other jurors "were all very uncomfortable" with this portion of the verdict. "We even asked the judge if he could do it. We really didn't want anything to do with that."
Once Judge Larry Naves reiterated that the jury had to tackle this task, Newill confirms that "the majority of us were in favor of giving him money," but they didn't know how much to award. "We were given a four-page set of rules to determine the amount, and there was also an option that we didn't have to do it. And one of the rules said there needed to be a preponderance of the evidence to show the financial effect it had on Ward Churchill. And there was no real dollar amount other than the loss of wages."
Ultimately, the jurors followed the lead of David Lane, Churchill's attorney. "He said, 'What price can you put on a reputation?'" Newill remembers. "And we all decided that there's not a price you can put on a reputation. And even though this was protected speech, there are still consequences to your actions and your words. When Ward Churchill wrote that essay, he had to think that people would be affected by that, negatively or positively, and that he would need to reap the consequences on his reputation." Still, she emphasizes that "it wasn't a slap in his face or anything like that when we didn't give him any money. It's just that David Lane kept saying this wasn't about the money, and in the end, we took his word for that."
Looking back on the trial, Newill admits to respect for Churchill's willingness to take an unpopular stand. "This was a truth to him that he sent up, and he defended it even when the whole country opposed it," she says. "I feel it takes a lot to do that, whether we agree with him or not. It takes a lot for somebody to step out and go against the grain like that."
She's not nearly as willing to praise the press. "The media has a really great way of twisting things around," she believes. "Afterward, people have said to me, 'He said this,' and 'He said that.' And I'd ask, 'Have you ever read the essay?' And the majority haven't read it. They've formed an opinion even though they've only heard bits and pieces."
That's not true of Newill. She listened to every word spoken at the Ward Churchill trial, and read a lot more, and she came away impressed with the entire process. In her words, "They did a really good job of picking unbiased people who weren't really led in our emotions."
Unlike so many others since the Churchill story began.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.