After months of deliberation Kenneth “Val” Geissler will get the bench trial he wanted.
Geissler’s wish was supported by the county’s prosecution as well as his alleged victim.
No date has been yet set for the bench trial – a trial where the judge alone makes the verdict – but Park County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jack Hatfield said it could be as early as next month.
Geissler is facing charges for soliciting prostitution and unlawful contact without bodily injury to a female minor. The felony charges he is facing carry up to five years in jail and a $5,000 fine. Geissler is also pleading not guilty to accusations of forcibly kissing the female minor, a misdemeanor carrying up to six months in jail and $750. He has pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason of mental illness to the charges.
District Court Judge Bill Simpson issued the decision letter on Feb. 16, approving the bench trial after prior trepidation. Despite being told on Jan. 7 all three parties had a desire for this to take place and Geissler submitting a formal waiver of jury trial, Simpson still waited on the decision for more than a month.
“The court initially had reservations about the case proceeding as a bench trial,” Simpson said in his decision letter. “However, considering the defendant’s waiver and continuing effort to assure the court that he and his counsel believe that a bench trial is the preferable method of determining the case, the state’s agreement that a bench trial is the appropriate form of trial, and the representation by the state that the victim also wishes to proceed in the case with a bench trial rather than a jury trial, the court will find that a bench trial is the appropriate method of determining the outcome of this case.”
By choosing a bench trial for the case, Geissler will forgo his right to have a jury trial. Simpson will serve both as judge and jury for the case as he will determine both the verdict and, if found guilty, sentencing terms.
In October, Simpson rejected the request for a bench trial made by the defense and prosecution. A month later a new request was made, and this time the victim’s wishes were included.
“It has been argued, in this case and in other courts, that compelling a criminal defendant to undergo a jury trial is a violation of the defendant’s right to a fair trial and to due process,” Simpson wrote.
In his decision letter, Simpson still expressed some negativity about the case going to a bench trial. He referenced a 1965 U.S. Supreme Court case in which the Justices found it “difficult to understand” how a defendant being compelled against his will to go to jury trial is contrary to receiving a fair trial or due process.
“The result is simply that the defendant is subject to an impartial trial by jury – the very thing that the Constitution guarantees him,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote.
The 80-year-old Cody man is accused of attempting to coerce a minor into prostitution in exchange for payments on a vehicle. The minor said she started receiving letters after she was loaned a $4,000 car from Geissler in July 2018, with $200 monthly payments. She says he attempted to negotiate sex with her in exchange for payments on the vehicle. The affidavit went on to say Geissler hand-delivered the letters to the minor and promised her millions of dollars in his will if she became a prostitute.
Hatfield said the prosecution and defense have no dispute regarding the underlying facts of the case, but will argue over whether Geissler’s actions took place as a result of mental illness.
He said it is very unlikely Simpson will find Geissler not guilty, and that it will likely come down to him being found either not guilty by reason of mental illness or guilty.
Bench trial vs. jury trial
The only procedural difference for a bench trial rather than a traditional jury trial is that the judge decides the verdict of the case.
County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jack Hatfield said the trial is expected to take no more than four hours.
He said Judge Simpson will likely take at least some time to render a decision after hearing arguments.
Hatfield said if Geissler is found not guilty by mental illness or guilty, Simpson will “almost certainly” not make a decision on sentencing terms until a later date. If found not guilty by reason of mental illness, he may receive time at the State Hospital or outpatient treatment.