LIHUE — A Fifth Circuit jury on Wednesday found a local homeless woman guilty of heroin possession.
Jurors deliberated for a little over an hour before returning a unanimous verdict, convicting Julia Scriven, 31, of promoting a dangerous drug in the third degree.
The guilty verdict came shortly after attorneys gave their closing arguments on the third day of the trial. Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Leon Davenport addressed the jury first.
“Julia was passed out on the bed,” Davenport told the jurors, describing the scene that unfolded when Scriven’s mother entered a Lihue motel room and found her daughter unconscious near a bag containing heroin. “She had the only key.”
Davenport reiterated the case he had spent the previous two days laying out by questioning his series of witnesses, a list that included the officers who responded to the scene, the police department employees who controlled the evidence, a chemical analysis expert who identified the drug, and even Scriven’s own mother.
The prosecution’s case hinged on two points. To find the defendant guilty, the jury had to unanimously conclude that Scriven possessed the heroin found in her backpack and that she did so knowingly.
Because Scriven was never seen holding the drugs, Davenport relied on “constructive possession,” a concept he described during his opening statement using an analogy in which he asked jurors to imagine they walked outside and assumed it had rained because the ground and trees and cars were wet.
If the substance found in her bag tested positively for heroin, Davenport said, “It rained.”
Scriven’s defense attorney, Matthew Mannisto, used his closing statement to attempt to cast doubt on what he hoped were the weakest points of the prosecution’s case. He began by intimating that Scriven’s mother may have planted the drugs, saying she bent over backwards to ensure police came to investigate her daughter.
“If Julia’s mother was willing to bend the truth on the stand in front of all of us,” Mannisto asked the jurors, “what else would she be willing to do?”
He also attempted to shed doubt in the minds of the jurors regarding the fact that police never dusted the evidence for fingerprints or took DNA samples.
“Given the facts of this case are you comfortable finding that Ms. Scriven possessed heroin?” Mannisto asked in closing.
All 12 jurors were apparently comfortable.
It is rare for any case to go to trial — the vast majority are settled via plea bargain — and given the relative insignificance of the charge, Scriven’s case is an unusual and comparitively costly one. Attorneys on both sides declined to comment on why the case wasn’t settled prior to trial and would not say whether Scriven was offered a plea deal.
The state invested thousands of dollars and dozens of man hours pursuing the class C felony conviction. It’s target was a woman who had less than $200 worth of illegal drugs in her backpack and was sound asleep in a motel room when her mother called police.
The trial tied up the Fifth Circuit courtroom of Judge Randal Valenciano for nearly three full days, including the jury selection process, and required the efforts of two Kauai County prosecutors, a court-appointed defense attorney, a couple bailiffs, at least one court clerk, and 14 Kauai residents — 12 jurors, plus two alternates.
Because Scriven could not afford a lawyer, the state was required to provide one to her free of cost, meaning that the hundreds of man hours devoted to her case all came at the expense of taxpayers.
The state presumably also had to buy plane tickets for two of the prosecution’s witnesses. Scriven’s mother was subpoenaed and flew in from Oregon to testify against her daughter. A chemical analysis expert came from off island and provided hours of testimony to help convince jurors that the small, black globule in Scriven’s purse contained some unspecified amount of heroin.
The cost of the trial is only a fraction of the total amount spent prosecuting Scriven.
All told, the case was well over a year in the making. Scriven has been in jail since May 2018 and her crime carries a maximum five-year sentence, meaning that by the time she is sentenced in August, Scriven will have already served nearly 16 months.
It costs the state of Hawaii over $43,000 to house an inmate for one year, according to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice. So even if Scriven is sentenced to a prison term equal to time served, the state will have spent over $55,000 o incarcerate her. A maximum sentence would leave taxpayers on the hook for well over $200,000.
Part of that cost could be offset by court-ordered fines, although $10,000 is the maximum amount allowed for a class C felony, and Scriven has not generated any legal income in years.
Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.