Following a day and a half of courtroom testimony — including the cross-examination of two Denver police detectives — it took 25 minutes for a jury to decide that Aspen Walkingstick was not guilty on three counts of drug possession. The jury's decision on Tuesday, December 18, marks the conclusion of seven months of uncertainty for the 24-year-old Walkingstick, who helps run a festival-fashion boutique in Denver and had been at the home of self-declared “burners” and “hippies” that was raided by a SWAT team at 5 a.m. on May 11.
Given that the people inside the house during the raid by dozens of heavily armed police officers were all part of an intentional community that bonded over music and arts festivals including Burning Man, Walkingstick's case was framed by her attorney, Jason Flores-Williams, as a government assault on alternative living.
Denver police detective Bret Starnes led an investigation into the home in late February 2018, using a confidential informant to purchase mushrooms, molly and LSD from Walkingstick's partner, Jesse Taenzer. Taenzer is the owner of the aforementioned fashion boutique where Walkingstick works, Pair O' Dime; he admitted on a video recording filmed the morning of the raid that he owned at least some of the drugs found inside the home, and later pleaded guilty in a deal with the Denver District Attorney's Office.
The video became central to Walkingstick's case; she and Flores-Williams argued that it helped prove Walkingstick did not personally possess any of the substances found the morning of the raid. Denver police detectives and prosecutors, including Deputy District Attorney Khoury Dillon, unsuccessfully tried to keep the video out of the trial, and also contended that they found a backpack belonging to Walkingstick that contained ketamine, molly and psilocybin (mushrooms). But while prosecutors had photos of the narcotics in question, there were multiple backpacks in the household and — although one had Walkingstick's wallet in it — there was no photo evidence with both the wallet and the drugs in the same backpack.
“We're not asking you to hold her accountable for all the drugs in that house,” said Dillon to the jury during his closing argument on Tuesday. “We're asking you to hold her accountable for the drugs she had on the morning of May 11.”
During his closing argument, Flores-Williams took the position that Walkingstick was unfairly charged and was roped into an overly broad prosecution. “When you act like an invading army, you hurt innocent people,” he said. The attorney mentioned Taenzer's videotaped claim that none of the drugs were Walkingstick's. “Now, is that a guy covering for her — or is that a guy telling the truth during the worst moment in his life?” Flores-Williams asked rhetorically.
The jury ultimately sided with the defendant, finding that there was not proof beyond a reasonable doubt with which to convict Walkingstick for felony drug possession. Taenzer, meanwhile, is going through the terms of his plea deal, and prosecutors mentioned that at least one member of the household will stand trial separately from Taenzer and Walkingstick.
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After the verdict was announced, Walkingstick spoke with Westword in the courtroom hallway.
“This marks a closing and a beginning,” she said. “It was a closing of a chapter that somebody forced into my book, but the beginning of a new chapter that I get to write. Even though our country says we're innocent until proven guilty, I was made to feel like I was guilty until proven innocent for the last seven months. I want everyone to know about injustice that didn't just happen to me, but is happening to Americans all over this country on a daily basis. People's fundamental rights are being taken advantage of, and not being listened to, and not being taken seriously. And that's not how it should be. People should not be afraid of their government. Their government should be afraid of their people.”
Walkingstick said that she and Taenzer are continuing to operate Pair O' Dimes and hope to launch their own clothing line sometime around the boutique's first anniversary, on April 20, 2019.
Flores-Williams, a well-known figure to Westword readers, offered some thoughts on the case as well. “This jury came down on the side of justice, affirmed the best parts of our system, and didn't prosecute someone for the way they live,” he said. “The drug war is political oppression, and that messaging is in and around the courthouse all the time when someone is being prosecuted for something like ’shrooms and MDMA. That's completely unnecessary. All we did was focus on the lack of evidence and the way they were trying to hold her responsible for the way she was living. While I respect my colleagues, I don't believe this prosecution should have ever happened to begin with.”