Sunday, July 14, 2013

Jury verdicts: what do they mean? Zimmerman, etc.

I don't have much to add to the cacophony of opinions on both sides of this George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin trial. Everything that could be said about it has been said. But this case, along with all the other media-fodder cases, has polarized people.

The problem with this polarization is that there were only so many people who sat inside that courtroom day after day after day, and who heard all the admissible evidence. Yes, Zimmerman's trial was available via live stream, but that doesn't mean that people who weren't on the jury but who watched it via live stream are in a position to give opinions on the justice system as a whole. For one thing, there were discussions on evidence that were heard outside of the presence of the jury. As a practicing attorney, I can safely say that discussions on evidence heard outside of the presence of the jury are discussions about things that, often times, are inappropriate for a jury to hear, as doing so would improperly impact their decision. So, by watching the live stream of the trial or hearing/reading about things that the jury was not privy to, you have already compromised your ability to fairly assess the situation.

This goes for ANY trial or case the media picks up & runs with. And I would include myself & other lawyers/legal professionals in the "compromised" category. The fact of the matter is that if we are not on the jury, we have access to information that the jury doesn't have and that information is kept from the jury bc a judge has determined it would unfairly impact the outcome of the case, either for or against the defendant. And bc we have access to that information that was determined to be improper for a jury, we can't say that a jury was incorrect in its decision. We are viewing a jury verdict through a completely different prism than the jury. And unless we were on the jury & saw/heard the evidence, without the media, Twitter, Facebook, friends, family, etc. offering thoughts & opinions on the evidence, we cannot say we would have decided any differently than the jury did.
This is true for the Zimmerman case, for the Casey Anthony case, it will be true for the Boston bomber case, and any other high-profile case that the media picks up. We simply cannot know that the jury was "right" or "wrong" in its decision bc we are viewing it w/ a completely different perspective.

The information kept from a jury, information that we know about as spectators, does make a difference. On more than one occasion, in talking to a jury after a trial, they asked questions of the judge & attorneys about things they wondered about but didn't hear in evidence. When given the answers, the juries have said they would have decided differently.
For example, I had a Violation of an Order for Protection trial. My client was acquitted. The jury told us that they thought he PROBABLY did it, but that the state's witnesses were just too unreliable to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. One juror asked if the defendant had a criminal record. He did. And then the jurors all agreed that if they had known that, they would have convicted him. Based just on that additional information, nothing changing about the evidence the state presented.

The problem with that is that we don't want juries convicting someone based on the person's past. They already were convicted on those past offenses. We want the jury to decide, based just on the information relating to THIS PARTICULAR INCIDENT, did the defendant commit the crime? And that is why the jury didn't know about my client's past criminal history. Bc it would have unfairly swayed them to a guilty verdict.

So yes, the information the jury doesn't know can & does affect people's opinions on the defendant's guilt. So no one can ever really know if they would have reached a different conclusion if they were not privy to the exact same information/evidence, free from any outside opinions on that information/evidence, as the jury was.

Also, it's important to remember that not guilty & innocent are different things. Beyond a reasonable doubt is a very high standard. The prosecution has a difficult burden to meet. A jury has to start by assuming the defendant didn't commit the crime; the state has to provide enough evidence to overcome that. It's a high bar. And sometimes, guilty people go unpunished bc the evidence simply wasn't there. Actually guilty & legally guilty are two different things. We as a society decided long ago that we wanted to make it difficult for the government to take away someone's liberty & sometimes their life, so we made the standard beyond a reasonable doubt. We decided it was better that 10 guilty men go free than for 1 innocent man to be convicted. Of course, we do still convict innocent people, but how much more frequently would that occur if we had a lower standard that the government had to meet?

Juries decided that the prosecution did not have enough evidence to say beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman, Anthony, etc. committed the crimes they were charged with. The juries did not decide that the actions by any defendant were right or good or without any problems. They did not decide that any defendant did nothing wrong or that the victims' deaths were unimportant or irrelevant. They did not decide it is ok to shoot whoever you want. What they did decide is that the evidence they were presented by the state did not explain away every other reasonable explanation besides the defendant's guilt. They decided that the evidence still left room for some reasonable doubt.

We like to turn jury verdicts into some statement by the jury about a broader social issue. It's not. It's a statement about the state's presentation of evidence in a specific case. That's all.

We can be troubled by the concern that this case may have come out differently if it were a white victim & a black defendant, but we should be troubled not bc the jury acquitted Zimmerman, but bc they may not have had he been black. That speaks more to our society's issues w/ racism than it does to any flaws in the justice system. The fact that black people are more often convicted than white people isn't remedied by convicting white people more frequently; it's remedied by convicting fewer black people based solely on race. It's remedied by juries viewing the state's evidence the same way regardless of race. That Trayvon Martin was black & Zimmerman wasn't shouldn't matter: Trayvon Martin's life was every bit as important and valuable as any other person's, regardless of race. And a defendant is not any more or less guilty bc of race. The racial issues in trials reflect our racial issues as a society. The remedy is to fix our issues in society w/ race, not to convict more white people just bc we would convict a black person under the same set of circumstances.

We can be saddened by the loss of the victims in cases. They're gone & nothing will change that. A jury acquittal doesn't foreclose the ability to mourn the victims. It doesn't say that the defendants' actions were right or without error. All it says is that the state didn't have enough evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.

It's senseless to apply any broader interpretation to any jury verdict than that: the admissible evidence presented to the jury in this particular case failed to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. That's it. That's all a verdict of not guilty means. It may very well be the case that the jury, like in my trial, thinks the defendant is PROBABLY guilty, but can't say beyond a reasonable doubt that he is.

And we as a society should be grateful that juries, even those who think the defendant is PROBABLY guilty, still make the state meet its burden. Given how many wrongfully convicted people we already have in prison, do we really want juries to let the state get by with less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt?

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