The nine-year 26th Judicial Circuit judge, re-elected in 2016, was willing to recognize the human, emotional toll of the United States and Missouri systems of justice. “The Court understands feelings sometimes run strong,” Hayden told the audience of mostly family members, relatives, media and Laclede County Sheriff's Office bailiffs. “I know you will keep reactions in check as best as you can.”
Judge Kenneth Hayden had been here before.
Maybe not at this particular moment in the Laclede County courthouse at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 14, 2017, on the verge of delivering the jury’s acquittal of Kansas City estate planning attorney Susan Van Note, some six and a half years after her father William Van Note’s and 15-year girlfriend Sharon Dickson’s gruesome murders in Sunrise Beach. But the nine-year 26th Judicial Circuit judge, re-elected in 2016, was willing to recognize the human, emotional toll of the United States and Missouri systems of justice.
“The Court understands feelings sometimes run strong,” Hayden told the audience of mostly family members, relatives, media and Laclede County Sheriff’s Office bailiffs. “I know you will keep reactions in check as best as you can.”
And then — after seven days of at times long, contentious, and emotional testimony and approximately four hours of deliberation — the judge, who had ordered the jury sequestered for the length of the trial, was prepared to receive the decision administered through jury forewoman Mary Hess, who appeared to be of close age to the woman who was to be acquitted.
All 12 jurors had reached the same conclusion, though not until requesting to re-listen to the 911 call of William Van Note and Susan Van Note’s initial conversation with investigators.
The jurors, 15 of them when it began last Friday including two alternates, both women, who were sent home before deliberations began, were not allowed to take notes during the playing of the audio tapes as were the instructions for the length of the trial.
They declined to re-listen to Van Note’s second discussion with investigators after the first two tapes were played and did not request to review any additional evidence presented throughout trial.
Van Note, wearing an all black outfit with a yellow and white polka-dot sweater, couldn’t help but burst into audible tears shortly after Judge Hayden delivered the jury’s verdict — not guilty on both counts of first and second degree murder for the brutal attacks that remain unsolved. Silence was eventually greeted by reality.
Her mother, Barbara, sitting in the back row of the courthouse, had a bailiff stationed in front of her as well as two more blocking the entrance to the judicial arena reserved for attorneys, judges and witnesses. She began to cry with Susan, or “Liz,” short for her middle name Elizabeth which is how she is commonly referred, as Hayden explained that the case files on CaseNet.com were gone forever and Van Note had officially been acquitted, the criminal charges against her dismissed.
A female juror wiped tears away. Others looked relieved, finally able to see and communicate with their family, and about the case if they so choose, after being sequestered to a local hotel for the last nine days.
Relatives of Sharon Dickson were visibly and audibly motionless as the verdict was read and stayed in the room until the trial was officially closed, shaking hands with prosecutors as they made their way for the exits of the Laclede County courthouse building where they had sat diligently, at times emotionally, on the right side of the aisle for eight out of the last nine days.
In the end, the prosecution team was brief.
Assistant Attorney General Kevin Zoellner, who lead the State’s case which ultimately lacked forensic evidence, along with Camden County Prosecuting Attorney Michael Gilley offered one minute of combined statements without taking any questions.
Zoellner said the United States of America had the greatest judicial system in the world and their job as prosecutors is to weigh the evidence collected by investigators to bring forth and ultimately prosecute charges for criminal activity. After that, the decision rests in the minds and hearts of the jury, in this case seven women and five men. The prosecution must always respect the outcome, he said.
A regional television news reporter attempted to ask Zoellner if the State was going to look into Ronald J. Vobornik, who the defense had introduced as a possible suspect with business ties to William Van Note and who was never investigated or located by a private investigator, but Zoellner declined to comment. The reporter, insistent, attempted to ask another question before Zoellner put the discussion to rest.
Gilley thanked the law enforcement who worked and testified on this case, primarily Camden County Sheriff’s Office, Missouri State Highway Patrol and Federal Bureau of Investigation and declined to comment any further or take any questions at the time.
The defense attorneys, Tom and Trisha Bath, along with Van Note, declined to comment as a television crew from a national crime show, parachuted in on the final day, followed and filmed Van Note and her mother walking toward the exit, rattling off at least four unanswered questions, as the microphones and portable lights followed them beyond the courthouse’s side entrance doors where Barbara had parked a blue BMW with Kansas license plates for the length of the trial.
Sharon Dickson’s son, Andrew Dickson, filed a wrongful death suit against Van Note in Camden County Civil Court on Sept. 26, 2013, for the death of his mother. The case has been delayed pending the outcome of this trial and at one point was placed on the dismissal docket. A hearing has been scheduled for March 9, 2017, according to CaseNet, which also lists Tom Bath as a co-counsel for the defendant.
Judge Hayden will preside.