Monday, September 05, 2011

Broken Justice

A story hit the Detroit Free Press recently about a man wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for three years for a sexual assault.* Apparently, this man committed this sexual assault while he was dictating medical records on the dictaphone. Very talented he is.

Or at least the jury thought so. They convicted him on the word of an accuser and her boyfriend, in the face of physical evidence that he was actually doing something else at the time they swore he was assaulting her. They sent him away for more than a decade, leaving a wife and children behind.

Turns out this particular piece of evidence about dictating during the time frame was presented at trial, and the problems with the timeline were shown.

The jury, however, was unable to figure the time line out. So they simply disregarded it. How thoughtful of them.

Now this piece of evidence doesn’t mean that he was innocent. He may have been guilty and the accuser was simply wrong on the timeline. But the fact is that a key piece of evidence was simply disregarded by people who are supposed to be seeking the truth.

On top of that there was a letter from a priest, seeking justice for the accuser by imprisoning the accused. Turns out it was forged.

But why was the priest writing a letter? Why wasn’t he showing up in person and taking the oath? Why didn’t the prosecutor subpoena the man and compel him to testify? Why didn’t the judge compel the man to come and testify?

Later, the accuser’s boyfriend had a twinge of conscience for lying on the witness stand and fessed up. The prosecutor wired him and now has the evidence that the accuser was laying on the stand.

The accused and convicted man spent three years in prison before being released after pleading to a lesser charge.

Now the prosecutor is trying to determine whether or not to charge the woman with perjury.

Really? Still trying to decide? What is the missing piece of evidence that will push you over the edge on this one?

And this is only one story of many. Others are detailed by The Innocence Project.

This should remind us all of the weakness of a jury trial. Simply put, a jury trial is a horrible way to get at truth. It is made up of a two sides, each presenting only arguments that favor their position. They have a vested interest in hiding certain things. Neither side is dispassionately interested in the truth. The defense attorney wants his client to go home. The prosecuting attorney has already staked his claim that this man is guilty and he has to see it right on through. And losing sex crime convictions is never a good way to get re-elected next time around.

A jury trial is overseen by a judge whose sole purpose is to make sure that the evidence is presented properly. He has no role in making sure that proper evidence is presented, or that proper consideration is given to the evidence. He can’t interject when attorneys or witnesses say stupid things, or make bad arguments.

It is based on the judgment of twelve people who, most likely, have better things to do than sit in the courtroom. While we would like to appeal to their noble side and think they would do their best, most people are very ill-equipped for the type of thinking that is necessary to process trial evidence. On top of that, in most cases they are not allowed to question the witness themselves. So they can’t even satisfy their own minds about questions. They can only judge on information that is presented.

If I were being tried (and for those who are linguistically challenged, I am not guilty of anything since “if” is a hypothetical, not an indicative), I don’t think I would want a jury trial. I know too many people. I know what they are like. I know the level of critical thinking in our society. And I can’t imagine the horror of trusting my life to a group of randomly selected people from Wayne County, or any other county.

This jury was utterly inadequate for the task. The prosecutor was utterly incompetent, and probably downright dishonest; knowing the timeline discrepancy, this should never have come to trial; it is hard to imagine any honest person could have ignored that. The judge should be impeached for allowing this. He is there for a reason, and he failed in the basic reason of controlling the trial to make sure it was a fair trial. The moment that the timeline was questioned and physical evidenced presented, if the prosecutor did not immediately back away from that line of reasoning, he should have intervened and declared a mistrial. A man’s freedom and family was on the line, and he stood by when he knew better. That is dereliction of duty.  It is unfortunately made by a man with no consequences. The judge, the prosecutor, and the jury will never have to face any consequences for this. And that makes it a lot easier to be cavalier with the facts and the truth. After all, it’s only someone else’s life.

Some suggest that you only want a jury trial if your case depends on emotion. If your case depends on facts, you want a bench trial. Why? Because judges are better with facts and reasoning. Juries are better with emotions.

If I were guilty, I wouldn’t want a bench trial. Judges are too smart; they are usually highly educated; they are quite often attorneys who have been through law school. They are more likely to be committed to the law, and less likely to be deceived by personalities on the witness stand. I would rather take my chances that there is at least one person on the jury that can be persuaded.

If I were innocent, there’s no way I would want to trust twelve random people from my community. Or your community. Because it’s not about the community. It’s about the nature of people.

In the final analysis, we should always remember that jury actions are forensic in nature. They are the conclusions of a group of people who make a legal determination, not necessarily a factual one.


*This article comments only on what was reported in the Free Press. It does not take into account the totality of evidence, since I have read no trial transcripts. However, the facts as presented in this article were enough to cause the prosecutor to free the man.

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