An accused serial home invader-rapist had his wish granted Wednesday when Circuit Judge Knox McMahon declared a mistrial in a Columbia courtroom and sent the jury home.
But the judge didn’t give a reason he was calling off the trial, which was in its second day.
The defendant, Nathan Martinez, 37, had asked for the mistrial late Wednesday morning after complaining about his court-appointed lawyer, Aimee Zmroczek. On Tuesday, the judge had granted a request from Martinez to fire Zmroczek and let him be his own lawyer in the case. She was still at the defense table as an adviser.
His trial was in its second day. Prosecutors were in the process of introducing a succession of witnesses to put before the jury what prosecutors said in opening statements would be volumes of indisputable evidence against Martinez. Evidence included eyewitness testimony, DNA, fingerprints and possibly a statement Martinez gave to police after his arrest.
In acting as his own attorney, Martinez on Tuesday extensively questioned under oath one of the women he is accused of raping. The woman sobbed through most of her answers. Martinez also cross-examined one of the woman’s daughters.
The woman once lived in Forest Acres, where one incident happened. Along with her 14-year-old daughter, she had come from the West Coast this week to testify against against Martinez.
On the witness stand, mother and daughter positively identified Martinez as the gun-toting, hammer-wielding stranger who had broken into their Forest Acres apartment on March 27, 2014, and raped the mother while the daughter, then 11, and her sister, then 5, were locked in a nearby bathroom.
McMahon declined to say publicly why he was declaring a mistrial and promptly sealed – made secret – an email from Martinez’s former attorney, Zmroczek, that the judge said in open court contained the reasons he was declaring a mistrial.
When McMahon announced he was declaring a mistrial, the woman who had been raped –and who had sobbed during her testimony about Martinez on Tuesday – began to cry audibly in the courtroom. The mistrial means she will have to go through her ordeal again, along with her daughter.
Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson pledged later Wednesday to try the case again.
Johnson said the reasons for the mistrial are in the sealed document, but he did not divulge its contents.
After the jury left the courtroom, a State reporter asked McMahon to make public the sealed email. McMahon politely told the reporter that he would listen to a request to open the document from The State’s media law attorney, Jay Bender.
Later Wednesday afternoon, The State asked Bender to ask McMahon to open the secret document so the public could learn the reasons the trial had been called off.
Right now, the reasons for scuttling the case as an expensive trial gets underway are not clear. Lawyers on both sides go to great lengths to round up witnesses and evidence. And any trial that takes place is usually the result of months of out-of-court work. The solicitor’s office has three prosecutors on the case.
Before McMahon declared a mistrial, Martinez told the judge he was dissatisfied with Zmroczek’s representation and that she had failed to do things such as investigate the prosecution’s witnesses.
McMahon did not question Zmroczek, who was in the courtroom, about her conduct. She had no comment to reporter who asked her about the matter later.