Bell acquitted in S. Salt Lake kidnapping case

Courts » One juror says the case should never have been brought to trial.
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After acquitting David James "D.J." Bell of kidnapping two South Salt Lake children, jurors were asking why the case ever came to trial.

"We agreed, as a jury, that [the four-day trial] cost taxpayers at least $100,000, and our time was wasted, as well," juror Natasha Jorgensen told The Tribune .

"We were appalled because it had come this far," she said. "There was just no evidence."

Added Jorgensen: "I would hate to have a neighbor kid come to my house and become a D.J. Bell myself."

The 3rd District Court jury of five men and three woman took less than three hours to acquit Bell of two counts of first-degree felony child kidnapping and one count of second-degree felony burglary.

Bell, 31, was accused of taking two children, ages 2 and 4, from the home of his next-door neighbor -- where a loud drinking party had been going all night -- to his home on the morning of July 4, 2008.

But defense attorney Susanne Gustin said the wrong person was put on trial.

The defense team has long maintained that relatives of the two children, who severely beat Bell and his gay partner, Daniel Fair, should be prosecuted for burglary and assault.

The Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office had previously declined to file charges against Bell's attackers. But prosecutor Alicia Cook said Friday that her office will take another look at assault charges, now that complications imposed by the kidnapping trial have been resolved.

In fact, testimony at Bell's trial, which implicates the father of one of the children, could be used against him, Cook said.

Announcement of the not guilty verdicts by Judge Paul Maughan's clerk was greeted by tears, cheers and smattering of applause.

Bell later told news reporters: "I almost wet myself."

Lulu Latu, the mother of one of the allegedly kidnapped children, sobbed all the way down the hall, surrounded by family, and into the elevator. Family members declined comment.

Meanwhile, a party atmosphere was building in the courtroom and hallways as Bell's supporters laughed, hugged and posed for group photos.

Bell emerged from the courtroom holding hands raised in victory with his attorneys, and said: "Justice has finally been served."

Bell said he would tell his side of the story at a news conference scheduled for today. He had been prepared to testify Thursday, but defense attorney Roger Kraft withdrew him as a witness because the judge would not let Bell give details of the beating. Kraft said Bell should be able to tell a complete version of what occurred.

Throughout the four-day trial, the judge tried to keep the focus on the alleged kidnapping of the children rather than the assault on Bell.

There has been heightened interest in the case because Bell is gay, and his attorneys have called the assault on him a hate crime.

During closing arguments Friday, Kraft said the defense had refrained from playing the "gay card." But Kraft reiterated the theme that "gay matters," saying sexual orientation affected how Latu reacted at finding the kids inside Bell's home.

"Lulu [Latu] had preconceived notions about gay men," Kraft said. "It's why she started screaming and hit the defendant."

Kraft said Latu would have had a calmer reaction had the children turned up at someone else's home. She would have said "thank you," said Kraft, who suggested the two children wandered over to Bell's house on their own.

Prosecutor Tupakk Renteria countered that the defense had "played the Polynesian card" by claiming the parents were neglectful for getting drunk and letting their children wander.

Renteria told jurors that the children being in Bell's home without the consent of their parents was enough to convict him of child kidnapping.

But Kraft sarcastically referred to the case as "the perfect kidnapping," then told the jury why it was anything but perfect. For starters, Bell allegedly took the children from a home where more than a dozen adults were partying in the driveway at the front of the home.

He then allegedly took them back to his own home where four adults, including Bell's partner, were sleeping.

Kraft accused police of conducting a shoddy investigation, noting that 10 people who attended Latu's party were never interviewed. Neither were four people at Bell's home, even though they wanted to talk and provided police with their contact information.

Juror Jorgensen agreed that if the police investigation had been "handled properly, [they] would have come to a different conclusion on that day."

Had Bell been convicted of the child kidnapping charges, he could have gone to prison for 30 years to life.

Instead, Bell said, he will return to school, where he is studying architectural interior design.