Manassas Journal Messenger | Judge declares mistrial in Lara case
The conviction of the Manassas man accused of murdering his estranged wife and dumping her body in Washington, D.C., was overturned Wednesday morning after the presiding judge declared a mistrial.
Circuit Court Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr. declared a mistrial after establishing that a juror, Lindy Heaster, had disobeyed a court order and then lied to the court.
During Gerardo Lara’s trial last week, Alston repeatedly instructed the jury not to taint their deliberations by talking to the public about the case, reading newspapers or watching the news. But during a hastily scheduled hearing Wednesday morning, it became apparent that Heaster had been caught on videotape purchasing a newspaper before the jury reached its guilty verdict.
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Lara, 44, was charged with the murder of his wife Marissa Lara. Marissa Lara’s boyfriend reported her missing May 13, 2003. Gerardo Lara told police in 2003 that his wife had been at the house that morning to get their two sons ready for school, but that she left shortly after arriving.
Her body was found in Washington, D.C.
Lara’s trial began April 11. Prosecutors presented a largely circumstantial case, while defense attorneys argued there was no physical evidence proving where Marissa Lara had been killed, let alone who was responsible.
The jury deliberated four hours last Thursday without a verdict. They returned Friday and found Lara guilty of murder and recommended he serve 40 years in prison.
Earlier Friday morning, defense attorney Jon E. Shields saw Heaster at the 7-Eleven on Grant Avenue in Manassas. She appeared to be carrying a newspaper, Shields told the court Friday morning. Alston questioned jurors, including Heaster, who denied purchasing a newspaper. Heaster claimed she had purchased a cup of coffee.
Shields asked for a mistrial Friday. Alston denied the request. But Tuesday, after viewing a video from the store’s security camera, Alston declared a mistrial.
“This was a very serious matter. You essentially lied to the court,” Alston told Heaster Wednesday. “You made an absolute mockery of the process. You embarrassed yourself and the other jurors.”
Heaster came to Wednesday’s contempt of court hearing with Manassas attorney Amy M. Ashworth. Asked if she were in a position to acknowledge she had purchased the newspaper and lied about it, Ashworth answered Heaster was. Alston found Heaster in contempt of court and scheduled a hearing for her punishment.
Contempt of court carries a maximum of 10 days in jail and a fine of up to $250. Alston asked the defense attorneys and prosecutors to document their expenses and provide them to him. He also directed his clerk to determine the court’s expenses for Spanish interpreters during the trial.
“You can imagine the resources devoted to a five-day trial — not only defense but also taxpayers’ — in interpreters, clerks, deputies …,” Shields said after the hearing. “It’s an expensive proposition, not to mention what the defendant had to spend in preparing for this event.”
Lara, who had been bonded out of jail during his trial, spent the weekend in the Manassas jail after his conviction. Shields told the court that he needed to make inquiries before presenting an argument for bond again.
“We obviously view this as an insult to the judicial process,” Shields said after the hearing. “We hope Mr. Ebert’s office will take all appropriate steps to restore the confidence of the people of this county in our judicial process.”
Paul B. Ebert is the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Prince William County. Since Heaster swore an oath to be truthful when she was empanelled on the jury, it is possible that she could be charged with perjury — lying under oath.
Alston told Heaster to have her affairs in order at her July 1 sentencing hearing. In June, a new trial date will be scheduled for Lara. Shields said he hoped Lara’s new trial would be “sooner rather than later.”