Reno jurors reluctant to serve 6 weeks in mystery murder trial
RENO, Nev. (AP) – It’s the kind of trial that promises all the drama of a made-for-TV murder mystery – a wealthy art appraiser accused of killing his wife in a staged crash off a mountainside cliff near Lake Tahoe.
But it also has prospective jurors scrambling for the exits with the anticipation the proceedings will stretch on for as long as six weeks.
In an impromptu speech appealing to the jury pool’s patriotism, Washoe District Judge Brent Adams admitted he would be taking an ”unconventional approach” toward jury selection in the trial of Peter Bergna, 48, formerly of Incline Village, Nev.
”I’m going to do something I haven’t done in 13 years on the job – address the jurors as a fellow citizen,” Adams said.
”I know nobody wants to be here, but you are demonstrating your good citizenship,” he told the teachers, construction workers, bookkeepers, blackjack dealers and others in this week’s jury pool.
Expected expert testimony on such technical matters as tire tracks, road conditions and mechanical engineering figures to make the trial a lengthy one.
Bergna told police his brakes failed just before his Ford pickup crashed through a guard rail and plunged 800 feet down the mountainside on May 31, 1998. He has proclaimed his innocence and his love for his dead wife.
But police investigators allege Bergna was angry with his wife, Rinette Riella-Bergna, 49, and wanted her dead because she traveled too much and didn’t want to have children.
Prosecutors say he steered the truck through the guardrail and jumped to safety before scaling 80 feet down the mountainside and calling 911 with his cell phone.
”This is a very interesting case,” said Adams, a former Las Vegas newspaper reporter turned lawyer and district court judge.
”We have superb lawyers on both sides,” he told the jury on Monday, doing his best to entice them into accepting a loss of income, handling business matters on weekends, canceling vacations – even giving up prized seasonal elk tags to serve on the jury.
When that hasn’t worked, he’s pressed for detailed explanations of their excuses and applied peer pressure, urging individuals to put their civic duty in perspective with the recent terrorist attacks on the East Coast and struggling democracies around the world.
”I realize it is unusually long. It is a very substantial commitment. Jury duty is a responsibility. It is not easy. It requires sacrifice,” Adams said.
”But it is the only way our system can work. … No judge, no law, no Congress can make our system work unless you do.”
The judge told of a recent visit with other judges to Tajikistan – a neighbor of Afghanistan in central Asia – as part of an international program aimed at ”establishing a legal system there with integrity and efficiency.”
He said a Tajikistani Supreme Court justice he met there had been kidnapped twice and more recently his 27-year-old son killed in retaliation for a high court ruling.
”That experience and the events of Sept. 11 underscores the importance of the institution of freedom all over the world,” Adams said.
He said foreign judges who visit the National Judicial College in Reno are ”deeply moved by the fact our most important decisions are reserved to the citizens.”
Adams’ lecture was meeting with some success as jury selection continued Tuesday and was expected to resume Wednesday.
One woman said she’d be willing to serve even though it meant losing $300 in airline and admission tickets for a horse show in New Mexico next month.
”I’d be out the $300, but I could do it,” she said.
Another planned to travel to Boston to help her son at Harvard celebrate his 20th birthday this month, but said she’d let her husband make the trip alone.
The man with tags to hunt elk in Oregon next month was more reluctant. A University of Nevada, Reno mining professor said he’d have trouble finding a substitute to teach his three weekly classes.
A retired merchant seaman said he has a bad back, but the judge told him he could stand and stretch in the jury box if necessary. A comptroller at a local casino worried about making regular reports to the state gambling commission, but Adams convinced him he could finish the reports on weekends.
The judge sympathized with a laborer who said he was trying to win custody of his two daughters and was to start a new job Friday moving furniture. But Adams told another man whose son is in jail and scheduled to be sentenced this month that a continuance in that case likely would be granted so he could serve on the jury.
Of the first 32 prospective jurists called, 18 indicated they had heard something about the case.
”I had assumed nearly everybody had,” Adams said.
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SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — A flash flood watch has been issued for the Lake Tahoe Basin.