Jury decides guilt, sentence in county's first bifurcated trial

Friday, September 17, 2004

By Linda Redeffer ~ Southeast Missourian

A neighborhood dispute that turned ugly led to Cape Girardeau County's first "bifurcated" trial -- where the jury first decided the issue of guilt, then was presented new evidence to consider before it determined the sentence.

In August 2003 a new law was passed changing all jury trials to conform with this process. Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle said the law came about as a result of St. Louis prosecutors "being tired of juries not knowing about a person's prior convictions when assessing punishment."

Juries had said that if they had known a defendant's background, they would have assessed a stiffer punishment in some cases. Now trials are held in two jury parts unless the defendant's attorney or the prosecutor files paperwork requesting the judge set punishment. The defendant must have one prior felony or two prior misdemeanor convictions for the prosecutor to bypass jury sentencing.

In Wednesday's case, Swingle said, the defendant requested that her attorney not file a request to have the judge determine punishment.

Wednesday a seven-man, five-woman jury found Kathleen Ligons, 40, guilty of a class A misdemeanor of stalking for harassing a neighbor in the Paul Dow Mini Farms neighborhood in rural Cape Girardeau County.

According to assistant prosecuting attorney Gordon Glaus, who tried the case, the issue began when some neighbors in the subdivision held a meeting to discuss breeches Ligons and her husband had violated in the subdivision's covenants and restrictions.

"She declared war on the whole neighborhood, especially Brenda Blackwell," Glaus said.

The jury found that Ligons had repeatedly, over a period of two years since that neighborhood meeting, threatened Blackwell, cursed at her, made obscene gestures toward her, threatened her children, trespassed on her property and exposed herself. She encouraged her dog to attack people in the neighborhood, pulled down her pants and mooned Blackwell, threatened to damage Blackwell's property, and harassed the family by pulling her car into the Blackwells' driveway, honking her horn and flashing her lights for 15 minutes. At an elementary school play day she approached Blackwell and her husband and threatened them using profane language.

A charge of stalking was filed against Ligons. Once the jury heard the evidence and found Ligons guilty, the process started over again with the penalty phase. Swingle said the second phase benefits prosecutors since it is at this time they can bring in new evidence about the defendant's prior convictions or character. The down side is that it lengthens the judicial process -- a new opening statement, presentation of more evidence and witnesses, and another closing statement.

During the penalty phase of the Ligons trial, Blackwell described for the jury the impact Ligons' behavior had on her family, harassing them to the point where they now have their home for sale.

"When she described her suspicions that Ligons may have poisoned the family dog," Swingle said, "Ligons blurted out in front of the jury, 'Bingo!'"

The jury recommended a sentence of 90 days in jail and a fine to be determined by Judge Gary Kamp. Swingle said the fine could be as much as $1,000. Kamp ordered a presentence investigation and scheduled sentencing for Oct. 25.

lredeffer@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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