From the Calaveras Enterprise:
On Friday, the Enterprise sat down with Valley Springs resident Mike Evans to discuss his experience serving as an alternate juror during the January trial of Karl Karlsen.
Karlsen, 59, was found guilty of murdering his wife Christina Karlsen in a Murphys house fire, 29 years after the fact.
A jury of 12 Calaveras County citizens delivered their verdict on Feb. 3 after a 13-day-long trial. The trial included over two dozen witnesses and eight hours of video footage from a 2012 interrogation of Karlsen concerning the suspicious death of his 23-year-old son Levi several years earlier.
According to the Calaveras County District Attorney’s Office, Karlsen has collected over $1 million in insurance payouts from fire-related losses and the deaths of his wife and son, which were initially deemed accidents by the authorities.
A native of Seneca Falls, N.Y., Karlsen pleaded guilty in 2013 to second-degree murder after he admitted to kicking a jack out from under a truck Levi was working on, crushing him to death. He was sentenced to 15-years-to-life in a New York State prison.
The Calaveras County District Attorney’s Office, headed by Barbara Yook, filed charges against Karlsen in August of 2014, and he was extradited to Calaveras County to stand trial for the 1991 murder of Christina.
The jury took eight hours to find Karlsen guilty of first-degree murder. He will be sentenced on March 17, and may face a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole, in addition to his previous sentence.
Evans and his three fellow alternate jurors did not participate during deliberation but heard the trial in its entirety. Evans said he was notified and present when the verdict was read.
A 54-year-old father of two, Evans works in the software industry and volunteers with a local children’s theater group. His experience with the Karlsen trial was his first time serving on a jury.
Q: Had you heard of the Karlsen case prior to your service?
A: I hadn’t, and I was probably only one of maybe two of us who hadn’t heard. … I’d say maybe half the people probably said they’d saw an article or something.
Q: What was your first impression of Karl Karlsen when you saw him in the courtroom?
A: I think I saw that he was well-shaved and kind of propped up to look proper. … But he never changed his looks or his expressions the entire trial.
Q: By the end of the trial, what was your ultimate opinion of Karlsen?
A: He truly is a narcissistic sociopath. … He’s always that cold. He’s always that devoid of emotion, and the only time he showed (it), it wasn’t even emotion. He had theatrics where any time they were talking about his son or his wife, he would take off his glasses and make a big show as if he was wiping his eyes, but there weren’t any tears there.
Q: Do you agree with the verdict?
A: Absolutely. It was tough being an alternate because as the four of us walked out, I personally wanted to look at the jury and say, “You guys got this, right?” … I thought that this was so above and beyond, I couldn’t imagine that anyone there was going to have an issue with finding him guilty. I think it was inescapable that he was gonna be found guilty.
Q: Was there a defining moment or piece of evidence that shifted your opinion one way or another? At what point did you feel you could make a solid decision on the case?
A: I think my first inkling or feeling that he did this was the testimony that he, one by one, put his kids in his car, along with the dog, while his wife was still potentially burning in the house. And there’s absolutely no human way anyone would do that unless it was cold and calculated. And something that was really pivotal for me — it came out at the beginning — Erin, his daughter, was one of the first to testify, and she said that he pulled her and her sister out and put them in the car, and it was just them in the car, and then Levi, the brother, came later. All along, my personal belief is — and I think I was proved right — was he intended to burn the kids as well. Levi got out of the house. ... It fit the pattern, finally, that he wouldn’t have taken insurance out on the kids and left that money on the table. … He did nothing but complain that he was a single parent saddled with his kids afterward. Why would he have done that? ... I think, in the end, Levi saved his sisters.
Q: Had you already come to that conclusion before the prosecution argued it in closing?
A: Coming from theater, I’m always looking at motivation. … I think what really drove it home later was that we have the benefit of establishing a pattern. When you really see that his M.O. through his life is torching, getting what he needs, and burning those around him… it all, in hindsight, fit what happened back then. … The lies that he was caught in during the audiotape and videotape were undeniable. Why would somebody lie like that? He just couldn’t keep up with all his lies.
Q: What was your process as a juror in keeping track of everything that you heard?
A: Writing copious notes. And I would circle things that were a fact, versus things that were an opinion. … Then, also, I started putting “BS, BS” because of all the lies he was telling. ... And I also had, in the margin, an area for why someone might have a horse in the race. … There was very little of that. … I think that people gave him a very fair shake, and I didn’t hear a lot of testimony from family members or friends that were purely based upon emotion. … We were all taking copious notes.
Q: Were there any moments during the trial that stood out to you or strongly affected you? Conversely, were there any portions that you found boring or unnecessary?
A: I guess each time the reality of what he did to his family members, more than anything, as a dad and as a husband, it was unfathomable. It was all I could do to not want to throttle him. … A lot of families have a black sheep or have somebody who’s troubled — that just pales next to actually (having) a psychopath in your family who’s caused all this pain.
As far as the length of the videos, the length of the audio, I found that to be probably the most valuable part, because it was straight out of his mouth. … However it was able to get in, it was huge to be able to have this guy fast talk his way — try to fast talk his way — out of things.
I found Karl’s tell. … Every time he was listening or he was watching the video… physically, as soon as he engaged in a lie, he would cover his face from us.
Q: Why do you think Karlsen so adamantly denied expert findings that Christina had been drinking alcohol in the hours before her death?
A: I think that he had her drink. … And I know how guys like this work, where they could talk their wife or their significant other into (drinking). … I don’t think she was a closet drinker. It was very isolated. No one had ever seen that kind of behavior. So I think it was another part of his plan. ...
When her photo (was shown) of her leaned forward, and she had been using a wash rag (to cover her face). .. . So here’s the thing: when would somebody know, especially if they are a little inebriated? … If she’s in the bath, I think she’s being instructed what to do. “Stay in there, put the washrag (up), get all the way in the water.” … I think he instructed her to stay put.
Q: What were some strengths and weaknesses you perceived in the prosecution’s case?
A: I would say the strength (was) being very thorough. At times, maybe the defense was saying she was being tedious … I didn’t find any of it was.
I think any weakness was most likely something that’s out of their hands, things that they couldn’t introduce.
Q: How about the defense?
A: I really pity the defender for having to have his hand dealt, because it was very easy to see through this guy. … I think he did the best he could do and had to play the “It’s been 30 years” angle. … He tried to pick at places where people’s memories gave out.
There were things that the defender did that were off-putting, in how he would attack or question some people’s motives… (but) they have to do that. But also, a lot of his body language was that he was bored with this testimony, he was bored with the video. … We’re talking about deaths here, and so none of this is boring. You could go on for a month, and I think we all would have stayed tuned. And so I think he overestimated how, maybe normally, an audience or a jury would be reacting to his antics. And so it ended up (that) I disliked him. I should have just disliked his client.
Q: If the Calaveras County District Attorney’s Office had prosecuted this case 29 years ago and you served on that jury, do you think you would have arrived at the same conclusion?
A: Yes. There was enough evidence and questionable motive to show that this standalone crime was, in itself, enough to convict him. I think it was a perfect storm of him taking off three days later that made it so they dropped it. … Even days later, when they started finding some of this evidence, I still think that there were circumstances that caused this perfect storm of not pursuing it. I think if, at the time, if he hadn’t left or if someone had really pursued it, and they extradited (him), and they got this thing going, I think the science of it would have been stronger.
Q: Do you have any second-hand insight as to what the jury deliberated over for eight hours?
A: Someone said they didn’t want it to appear that they arrived at it too hasty or too quickly … But at the same time, I’d heard that there was one person who maybe it took a little bit of convincing or talking to or explaining … Another alternate said maybe that was around the instructions. Can we find first-degree murder if our special instructions require us to buy it all? … We weren’t trying the car, we weren’t trying the barn fire… So it could have been kind of on a technicality, but that’s just (what) I’m guessing.
Q: Did you expect the verdict to take more or less time than it did?
A: I gave it two hours. I thought they were gonna be in and out. Super Bowl was on Sunday. The actual day they came back in was Levi’s birthday… but I don’t think anybody knew that. … My understanding is they went through all the proper procedures, not wanting to mess anything up, which takes a while. … I don’t think they wanted to rush into it.
Q: Has this experience left you with any new opinions regarding the justice system in Calaveras County and/or in general?
A: I think the county is well protected with Barbara Yook in her office. I was very impressed with the job they did and her demeanor and the case that she put on. … It was really good to see that most people, especially people up here, can be very fair and take very seriously what (a defendant is) charged with.