Jury Trial Involving SWAT Raid of "Burners" Home Begins

Jesse Taenzer and Aspen Walkingstick at Pair O' Dimes in late April.
Jesse Taenzer and Aspen Walkingstick at Pair O' Dimes in late April. Mauricio Rocha
Jury selection and opening arguments in the case of Aspen Walkingstick, a member of an intentional community of festival-goers and self-declared "burners" who live in Denver, are getting under way today, December 17, at the Lindsey Flanigan courthouse.

Walkingstick is a 24-year-old who helps run a festival fashion boutique that caters to attendees of Burning Man and Sonic Bloom and other festivals, with her partner, Jesse Taenzer. Both are charged with felonies related to a number of narcotics and hallucinogens (LSD, molly, ’shrooms) allegedly discovered during a 5 a.m. SWAT raid at Taenzer’s home on May 11.

Yet Walkingstick and her attorney, Jason Flores-Williams, believe her case is about much more than drugs; in November, both told Westword that the serious drug charges Walkingstick faces reflect a broader assault on alternative living (Walkingstick describes herself as a “hippie”) as well as an overzealous expression of the Drug War. That claim is partly because of the severity of Walkingstick’s charges: Until last week, she faced a first-degree felony drug distribution charge that carried a minimum sentence of eight years in prison (the DA’s office has now dropped that charge, but Walkingstick is still facing felony drug possession charges).

At the trial, which begins this morning and is likely to wrap up by late Tuesday, Flores-Williams will defend Walkingstick separately from her partner, Taenzer (from whom Denver police detectives had a confidential informant buy drugs), and the attorney will argue that the festival drugs found during the raid had nothing to do with his client, Walkingstick.

As with most jury trials, the case will come down to narrative and messaging as much as hard evidence. Recent motions filed by both the Denver District Attorney’s Office and by Flores-Williams show a dramatic difference in approach. On December 13, the chief deputy district attorney in Denver asked the judge presiding over the case to bar “any evidence pertaining to Mr. Flores-Williams’ characterization of...‘the drug war as a form of political repression.’” The filing from the DA’s office also noted Westword’s previous story, and asked that all prospective jurors be asked during selection whether they had seen our coverage of Walkingstick’s case. (Westword had reached out to both the DA’s office and Denver Police Department in early November with a number of questions about Walkingstick’s case, but we were told those offices would not comment until after the trial.)

In an opposing motion filed on Friday, December 14, Flores-Williams fired back, arguing that he and his client were justified in speaking to the media about the matter on First Amendment grounds and that Westword’s early November story would not improperly influence jurors.

“As a general matter, the State prefers to perform its raids and prosecutions in darkness, literally and figuratively — sending out a press release after the conviction is secured — but if it is going to use its power to intimidate people and force them to live with the extreme burdens of potential incarceration, then it ought to respect that citizens may want to exercise their First Amendment rights and voice in response,” Flores-Williams wrote.

The counter-motions, which will be considered by the judge this morning before jury selection, also include an esoteric argument over whether a recording of Taenzer, allegedly claiming during the SWAT raid that various narcotics belonged to him and not others present in the home at the time, can be included during the trial. Flores-Williams wants the recording presented; the DA's office does not.

And although Flores-Williams concluded his motion by writing that he would not refer to “the Drug War as political repression” — as the DA's office requested — the attorney did cheekily get a jab in at prosecutors through his motion.

“[I] have no interest in referring to the drug war as a form of political oppression, which has resulted in trillions of wasted dollars, ruined families, and irreparably injured the lives of generations of American citizens,” he wrote. “So the State’s liminal request on this count is also unopposed.”
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker