High found not
guilty of attempted murder
Jury convicts her
of aggravated assault, burglary
Express Staff Writer
County jury last week exonerated Gail J. High of the attempted murder of a
Ketchum police officer’s wife, but convicted her of aggravated assault
in connection with a gunshot she fired while struggling with the Kassners’
renter, John Straka.
prosecution had contended that High, 39, a former Sun Valley Police
Department employee, went to the Kassners’ home in Hulen Meadows on Dec.
16, 2000, to seek revenge for a DUI citation Sgt. Dave Kassner had issued
her earlier that evening. In a court trial in Hailey that began Dec. 11,
Idaho Deputy Attorney General J. Scott James told the jury that High was
distraught over the probable effect a conviction on the DUI charge would
have on her plan to become a police officer.
High’s attorney, Keith Roark, countered that his client went to the
Kassners’ home to kill herself as a statement to Sgt. Kassner.
District Court jury returned its verdict Thursday afternoon following
about two hours of deliberation.
think we accomplished what we set out to do, which was to dispute and
disprove the contention that she was there to commit murder," Roark
High still faces a possible 45 years in prison for the aggravated assault
conviction and for a related burglary conviction handed down by the same
jury. High is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 28.
two-and-one-half-day trial, High, wearing conservative dresses and with
her hair pulled back in a pony tail, listened impassively to witnesses’
stand Thursday, she told the jury that after Straka had admitted her into
the house and momentarily turned his back, she pulled her .40-caliber
Glock pistol out of a holster and began to lift it to her head.
that point I just didn’t want to live anymore and I wanted to shoot
myself in the head at his home," High said in a choked-up voice.
"I just felt like everything was gone."
the apparent ruin of her career plans came on top of a recent divorce. She
said she had made five earlier suicide attempts in the past 10 years.
Lybrand, the cab driver who took High to the Kassners’ house, testified
that she was sobbing during the ride and when he dropped her off.
was a sad woman," High’s former roommate, Mike Sheehan, told the
jury about a brief encounter he had with her when she arrived home to pick
up her gun following the DUI incident. "This wasn’t a lashing out
or vengeful woman."
such testimony, prosecutor James urged the jury during his closing remarks
to give more credence to High’s actions than to her words. He pointed to
three things he said indicated murder to be a more probable motive than
suicide: one, that High stood back from the door she expected Colleen
Kassner to emerge from to allow the door to swing toward her and Kassner
to walk out; two, that the gun was pointed into the air, not toward High’s
head; and three, that she continued to struggle after Straka grabbed her
hand and attempted to wrest the gun from her.
question is not what the defendant was going to do to herself," James
said. "The question is what was she going to do first."
closing statement, Roark pointed out that High had not asked to see Mrs.
Kassner or the couple’s two children, and that it was Straka who invited
emphasized it was the jury’s duty to return a guilty verdict only if it
could do so beyond a reasonable doubt. High’s alleged suicide attempt,
he acknowledged, was "about as selfish an act as a human being can
engage in, and it was an ugly act, no question."
don’t ask anyone to justify or excuse what Gail did. We only ask you to
do what juries do, to consider the government’s evidence."
that evidence, he contended, "you can see both possibilities, and
when you can see both possibilities, you have a reasonable doubt."
interviews following the verdict, both James and Roark praised the jury
for its apparent intelligence and attention to a difficult case.
Roark called the combination of a not-guilty verdict on the attempted
murder charge and a guilty verdict on the burglary charge "a bit
baffling." In Idaho, a person is guilty of burglary when he or she
enters a building with the intention of committing a felony or theft
she could have intended to do (the assault against Straka) before he
grabbed her is a mystery to me," he said. "(The jury) may have
rejected the precise instructions of the court to make some statement
about the propriety of Gail’s behavior."
One of the
instructions to the jury was that an attempted suicide does not constitute
a crime in Idaho.
he will likely ask for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the
assault conviction at High’s Jan. 28 sentencing hearing, and will
probably do something similar with the burglary conviction. During the
trial, Roark moved to have the assault charge dismissed, on the grounds
that given the evidence presented, no reasonable person could find High
had intended to harm Straka. Judge James May denied the motion and sent
the question to the jury.
prosecution side, James said he thought the jury "did a great job of
sorting through the evidence and making difficult decisions."
said he would have liked to have been able to present evidence of previous
incidents of allegedly violent behavior by High. Judge May ruled evidence
about two such alleged incidents in California inadmissible during a
hearing Oct. 15. During the hearing, James contended that the incidents
show that "whenever the defendant feels that somebody has wronged
her, then she lashes out at them—she does not harm herself."
he expects to be able to introduce such evidence at High’s sentencing
arraignment on Monday of this week, High began to move through a second
criminal proceeding—that of her Dec. 16, 2000, DUI charge. Through her
attorney, Doug Nelson, she pleaded not guilty to the charge, despite an
admission at last week’s trial that a breath test had indicated her
blood alcohol level that evening was substantially over the legal limit. A
trial is scheduled for Jan. 31.