Emotions Run High As Villegas Damages Trial Winds Down

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"What happened when the ambulance arrived?"

The question posed by her attorney, Bill Harbison, caused Juana Villegas to cry forcibly and without warning in court Wednesday afternoon. Federal District Court Judge William Joseph Haynes Jr. immediately called for a recess, and Villegas, sobbing, left the witness stand.

To be sure, emotions ran high as the damages trial for Villegas witnessed its most compelling testimony. When the court reconvened, the Mexican immigrant and mother of four provided more details of her experience at the hands of the Davidson County Sheriff's Office, whose deputies detained Villegas after she was arrested on traffic charges in 2008, and in whose custody she went into labor while shackled in metal chains — which plaintiff's attorneys showed to the jury Wednesday.

"I feared for my child," she said via an interpreter. "I didn't know if I would even be able to open my legs [wide enough]."

Emotions also appeared to factor into Haynes' reception of what he called "mystifying" presentations by Metro attorney Kevin Klein, a young $100-haircut-sort whose arguments attempted to discredit Villegas' testimony of pain and suffering by highlighting supposed holes in her medical history. Despite the assurances of expert witness Dr. Jill DeBona, Villegas' psychiatrist, that her patient exhibited tell-tale signs of PTSD, and no matter that reams of hospital reports and other evaluations have been entered into the factual record, Klein questioned Villegas herself at a snail's pace about English-only medical forms that she has never seen before.

"I am amazed that you would ask Villegas, a woman who can barely understand English and who has a sixth-grade education, if she agreed with the functional psychiatric assessment of a trained medical professional," Haynes chided the attorney after dismissing the jury.

Also puzzling to Haynes was the selection of Villegas' neighbor, Maggie Hernandez, as a last-ditch witness for Metro, and the equally absurd question Klein put to her:

Did you have a conversation with Juana Villegas the day after she returned home from jail?

"Yes," Hernandez replied.

And in that conversation, did Villegas ever tell you that while she was shackled in jail that she had to hop like a bunny rabbit when she went to use the restroom?

"Uh," said Hernandez, chuckling. "I don't know, I don't think so. A bunny?"

Yes, a bunny. Like a rabbit.

"Oh," she said, smiling and confused. "In Spanish, the word for rabbit is conejo."

And did Villegas say she hopped like a conejo while she had to use the bathroom in jail?

"Yes, she did."

No further questions.

Hernandez left the stand and walked toward the gallery benches, shaking her head and shrugging her shoulders, communicating the pan-lingual signage for what the fuck was all that about?

But Haynes saw it differently. On the question of the rabbit hop, he said Klein was trying to poison the jury's well.

"And that question about the hopping," Haynes said to the attorney after dismissing the jury for the day, "you left a clear impression to the jury that there's something more here that they ain't gonna get. You have mystified the court."

Klein disagreed, but Haynes was undeterred, criticizing Metro's counsel further before walking out of the court.

Closing arguments are scheduled for Thursday at 9 a.m., and afterward the jury of seven will decide how much, if any, compensation to award Villegas.

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