Deputy: Man on trial for attempted murder attacked prison guards
As jurors walked into the Steele County courtroom to submit their verdict Friday afternoon, Darin Dahl was shackled with chains and dressed in an orange prisoner's jumpsuit.
He wore what's known as a "spit mask" -- black, see-through netting covering his entire head and an elastic garment covering his mouth.
He sat in the courtroom's center aisle, out of reach of everyone except two burly deputies who stood at his back.
It was the first time the jury had seen the 35-year-old defendant in the courtroom all day.
That's because on Friday morning, Dahl had an outburst at the James River Correctional Center in Jamestown, attacking guards who came to retrieve him for court, Steele County Deputy Justin Hoag said. The shackles, jumpsuit and mask were given to Dahl in lieu of the street clothes he'd previously worn to court, Hoag said.
For the safety of those in the courtroom and so not to have Dahl's appearance sway the jury, Judge Steven Marquart of state District Court decided to have Dahl listen to the day's proceedings from a room off the back of the courtroom, out of sight of the jury.
Legally, Dahl had to be present for the reading of the verdict, his attorney Blake Hankey said.
Once seated in court, a woman on the jury was visibly startled by the sight of Dahl. That juror cried as the court clerk read the verdict: guilty of felony reckless endangerment, guilty of attempted murder.
"It was emotional for the jury because this, I mean, is a small, tight-knit county and community," prosecutor Charlie Stock said. "People know each other, and they know exactly where the incident happened, and they probably have bumped shoulders with Mr. Dahl in the past, even."
Dahl, Cooperstown, N.D., was accused of firing on officers and hitting one of them in the helmet with a shotgun round during an April 2008 standoff at a Luverne, N.D., home.
The jury -- four men and eight women -- took less than two hours to deliberate. Several jury members declined interviews after the trial, but juror Carrol Dronen spoke briefly with the Herald.
"It was a fair deal," he said. "There was overwhelming evidence."
Aside from the typical guilty and not guilty verdicts, jurors had a third option on both charges of finding Dahl not guilty because of a mental defect. On this issue, jurors heard from two psychologists with differing opinions of Dahl's mental state during the standoff.
Dr. Robert Lisota, who works at the North Dakota State Hospital, testified for the prosecution Friday, saying Dahl understood the consequences of his actions and was in touch with reality at the time. Explaining his conclusions, Lisota pointed to Dahl's concerns about criminal charges and prison time during the standoff.
Lisota mentioned an apologetic note Dahl wrote to his friend, the owner of the Luverne house which SWAT teams bombarded with tear gas.
The note, left above the bathroom sink, read: "Mick, Sorry about the house -- Darin."
Lisota said such a note, as well as the apology Dahl gave Steele County Sheriff Wayne Beckman after the incident, were not what he'd expect of someone who did not understand the situation.
Lisota also said Dahl's repeated suicide threats were an attempt to manipulate authorities.
"Frankly, in my experience, people who want to kill themselves do so," the doctor said. "They do not, within small, short periods of time, threaten to kill themselves over and over."
Soon after the standoff ended, Lisota said, MeritCare hospital in Fargo deemed that Dahl was not suicidal.
In addition to schizophrenia, which waxes and wanes in its severity, Lisota diagnosed Dahl with a consistent personality disorder with paranoid and antisocial features. That disorder coupled with marijuana use, Lisota said, was the primary driver behind Dahl's actions during the standoff.
"Nothing says 'I'm antisocial' quite like shooting at police officers," Lisota said.
Dr. Stacey Benson, who has a private practice in Fargo and was enlisted by the defense, told jurors Thursday that Dahl has been hospitalized for mental health reasons at least three times. She said it was unclear whether Dahl comprehended the situation but that he suffered "serious distortions of reality" during the 22 hours in question.
Stock said that after the trial, a juror told him that Dahl's "thoughts were too connected for him to not have understood what was going on and to understand the nature and harmful aspects of what he was doing."
A sentencing date has not been set. Dahl faces a maximum of five years in prison for reckless endangerment and 20 years for attempted murder.
Dahl's sister, who declined to give her name, said she does not think her brother belongs in prison because there, "he doesn't get the medical help that he needs."
During course of the trial, Dahl was shackled and three deputies stood guard in the courtroom. He had no outbursts in front of the jury, but on Thursday, he raised his voice at a deputy when jurors were not present.
Don Redmann, warden at the James River Correctional Facility, said the outburst at the prison was "nothing extraordinary" and that no guards were injured.
Deputy Hoag told the judge that Dahl struck, spit at and tried to bite the guards. Dahl also attempted to use a piece of broken Plexiglas as a weapon, Hoag said.
During the scuffle, Dahl suffered a bruise to his face and was struck in the leg, leaving him limping, Hoag said.
Hoag said Dahl vandalized his cell, including urinating on the floor, before the guards arrived.
In October, a jury convicted Dahl of reckless endangerment for shooting at a rural Griggs County home in April 2008. Because of that incident, law enforcement went to the Luverne home, where Dahl was staying, and the standoff ensued.
During a sentencing hearing on the Griggs County charge, Dahl kicked a chair, sat on the courtroom floor and threw a pen at a judge, Griggs County Sheriff Bob Hook said.
An appeal in the Steele County case appears likely.
"In prior cases that I've represented him on, he's appealed every decision," Hankey said. "So it's not a stretch to think that he would want to appeal."
Stock went a step further.
"I have no doubt that he's going to appeal. I also have no doubt that it'll be upheld on appeal," Stock said. "It was a cleanly run trial."