It took only an hour of deliberation for a Bakersfield jury to decide Monday that the Kern High School District acted negligently by allowing Bakersfield High School students to violently pile on top of classmate Mitchell Carter, who was wearing a chicken costume meant to mock an opposing team’s mascot during a 2010 pep rally. The jury voted 10 to 2, a sufficient margin for a verdict in a civil case.
Damages, to be determined in the second phase of the trial in Kern County Superior Court this week, could be worth several million dollars.
“This jury just spoke 100 percent against the district by not placing the blame on anybody other than the district and not on other students,” Carter’s attorney, Nicholas Rowley, said, adding that the defense trotted out witnesses whose credibility was called into question, BHS Head Football Coach Paul Golla among them.
During a dramatic closing statement, over the overruled objections of the defense, Rowley stepped into the same costume that Carter wore almost six years ago, the day of the Drillers’ valley football championship game against the Clovis West High School Golden Eagles.
The inside of a chicken costume isn’t a comfortable place to be, Rowley said Monday, stepping into the fowl, tattered, yellow suit. It’s hot, it lacks padding, it stinks and, most of all, wearing it is humiliating, he noted.
Carter was wearing the very same suit that day when he was mobbed by a mob of fellow students. They pounced on him, punching, kicking and leaping onto a dog pile that Carter has said left him with brain injuries. Cellphone videos capturing the incident have gone viral.
“If you think of sending a message,” Carter’s lead attorney, Ralph Wegis, said before court proceedings began Monday morning, “who ought to be wearing that chicken suit at the end of this trial?”
Rowley called the defense’s argument a “conspiracy” fraught with contradictions and lies as he paraded in front of jurors in the chicken costume. The attack on Carter, he said, wasn't just an unfortunate accident, it was BHS tradition.
Meanwhile, lead defense attorney Michael Kellar said Carter was responsible for his own injuries. He's the one, after all, who devised the skit that led to the dog pile, he said. And if anybody is held liable, it shouldn't be the school district – it should be the boys involved in the dog pile, Kellar said. He named 11 as potentially liable, but called only a few as witnesses to defend themselves.
Jurors didn’t find any of those 11 students liable for damages.
'HE TOOK AN OATH AND LIED TO YOU'
The final witness called, USC assistant coach John Baxter, told jurors that he watched the dog pile form that December day in 2010 while sitting alongside Golla. He was in Bakersfield scouting for football talent.
“In 31 years, I've seen a lot of things and you see kids being kids and people doing things they do at pep rallies. I don't usually pay too much attention to the lunacy that goes on,” Baxter said. “You usually see a whole lot of school spirit and cheering. Not a whole pile of people.”
Golla testified Thursday that he wasn’t in the gym when that dog pile took place.
“(Golla) got up here, took an oath and lied to you. Can you imagine that the great school district, the school district in this community, is putting witnesses up here to lie to jurors,” Rowley said. “They’ve done it.”
The school district attempted to cover up the entire incident, Rowley said. The investigating KHSD police officer didn't see witness statements that administrators had taken until last week in court. He was the sole officer investigating the incident.
“We've got a police officer, a detective doing an investigation, who didn't get the reports. Bakersfield High School withheld the reports from him. Or, was it just a blind eye?” Rowley said. “This is a cover-up, a conspiracy.”
Anna Lovan, the BHS activities director, didn't see the dog pile forming, nor did Golla, they both testified. BHS Principal David Reese testified that he had no advance knowledge that a chicken suit would be used in a pep rally skit, but Lovan testified later that he approved it.
“It's funny how the truth finds things for you,” Rowley told jurors.
'CARTER'S MOTIVATED BY GREED'
Kellar, however, told jurors in his closing argument that it was just the opposite. It wasn't a conspiracy, a cover-up or lies on the part of KHSD employees. Carter is the liar, he said.
“Everybody's lying. It's a big cover-up, a conspiracy, and the only one telling the truth in this courtroom is Mr. Carter? I submit to you it’s completely the reverse,” Kellar said. “Mr. Carter's motivated by greed for money to tell absurd stories in an effort to justify how this went down.”
However, Kellar first back-peddled. During opening statements, he had called Casey Wood, the boy Carter had pushed during the pep rally, a “special needs” student. He painted a picture of Woods as an “honorary member” of the team who football players and other students had arisen to defend.
Except Wood isn't a special needs student, and he testified to that, pointing out that he’d earned a 3.96 GPA in his senior year. And he wasn't an “honorary” member of the team. He’d earned a spot, though he wasn't a starter.
“I may have misspoken. I was misinformed with regard to Casey (Wood) being special needs,” Kellar said. “What I meant to say is he has special characteristics.”
Kellar said that the plaintiff's attorneys bringing that up throughout the trial was an attempt to turn the jury against the school district and “enflame [their] passions.”
“That's not right,” Kellar said.
He pointed to Lovan's testimony to prove his point that Carter had lied. Lovan specifically denied telling Carter to “incite” the students at the pep rally, Kellar said.
“I submit that’s preposterous, absurd and it didn't happen,” Kellar said.
Rowley pointed to notes written in the men's locker room reading “kill the chicken” and “Fight! Fight! Fight!” leading up to the day of the pep rally as positive proof that the school created an atmosphere conducive to violence.
But Carter's injuries are his own fault, Kellar said.
“The reason things got out of hand is because Bret Mitchell Carter took it upon himself to create a skit unapproved that was poorly planned, ill-advised and caused things to go south,” Kellar said.
Kellar continued with his argument that the school did nothing wrong. The skit Carter and Wood dreamed up before the pep rally wasn't authorized by a school official, Kellar said.
“If you listen to these folks, you're supposed to stop using mascots,” Kellar said, referencing Carter's attorneys. “Completely abandon a tradition because Mr. Carter couldn't follow instructions. Couldn't follow the directives of the activities director and eliminate any risk that resulted when he started to pick what appeared to be a fight with Mr. Casey Wood.”
A SCHOOL TRADITION
Kellar attempted to poke holes in the opposing attorney's arguments, trotting out a yearbook photo of man in a horse mascot uniform on the ground. The BHS mascot, Danny the Driller, has his foot atop the horse flexing his muscles. Carter's sister, Allyson Jones, identified the downed mascot in her testimony as Bob Stone, a teacher who in 2005 was knocked down and injured by members of the football team during a pep rally.
Except Bob Stone testified that it wasn't him, something Kellar said is “comical” and a “concrete example of impeachment.” That photo presented as evidence was from 2004, a year before Stone slipped into the costume and sustained those injuries.
“If this is from the 2004 yearbook photo, then that means this is school tradition to knock the opposing team's mascots to the ground and stand on top of them,” Rowley said in his rebuttal.
“Stop the tradition,” Rowley told jurors. “Hold the school accountable.”
Less than an hour later, jurors did just that, Wegis said.
The Drillers lost that December 2010 valley championship game to Clovis West, 20-10, in Clovis.