Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Why Just Having the Right to a Jury Trial Matters

Recently, I had a jury trial that reminded me why having the right to a jury trial matters, and why it is blatantly unfair that juveniles do not have that right, and yet their convictions from juvenile court can count significantly in sentencing decisions for crimes they may commit as adults.

My client was charged with stalking. I don't want to get into all the details, but I will say that, based on my interpretation of the stalking statute, I did not believe my client was guilty. Even assuming all the facts as laid out in the police report were true, I did not believe that my client committed the crime of stalking under any reasonable interpretation of the stalking statute. In Washington, this allows us to file a motion before trial, arguing that the charge should be dismissed. For the purpose of the hearing, you concede that everything in the police reports are true, but say that all of that information is insufficient to prove the crime charged. So, I filed that motion. The judge and the prosecutor each had their own different but equally unreasonable--in my opinion--interpretation of the statute, and so my motion was denied. My client was disheartened, but I told him I still thought we should win in a jury trial.

So, we went to a jury trial. This time, I made essentially the same argument in a motion to dismiss after the state rested its case. My legal argument was the same, but the judge this time was deciding whether the evidence actually presented at trial--as opposed to what the police reports said--was sufficient for any reasonable jury to convict my client of the crime. Again, I made my argument, and once again, the prosecutor had his unreasonable interpretation, and the judge came up with a strange interpretation of the evidence to go along with his strange interpretation of the law, and denied me again.

And so, I was left to argue the law to the jury. I had not disputed any real fact presented by the state. I gave a 5-7 minute closing argument. I just wrote the key words from the definitions in the statute and explained why, no matter what they thought of what my client did, they could not find that what he did was the crime of stalking. I was, essentially, making the exact same arguments on the law that I had made to the judge to the jury. The prosecutor made his arguments about why what my client did fit the statute and he argued his interpretation of the statute.

The jury deliberated for about 45 minutes, and found my client not guilty. This, despite the fact that the victim of the alleged stalking was a police officer.

When asked by the prosecutor afterwards why they acquitted, they said that the definitions made it pretty clear that what my client did wasn't stalking. A few days later, a friend of mine told me that a woman she knew had been on my jury, and that she had said that it took them a while to vote on who the foreperson would be, but that the "not guilty" verdict was easy.

And yet, if my client, like a juvenile, had no right to a jury trial, he probably would have been found guilty. He may have won an acquittal on appeal, but that likely would have been after he had done at least a significant amount of his probation and probably all of his detention time. Sometimes, even when your whole case is about a correct interpretation of the law, you need to have 12 citizens who can read two or three definitions, put them together, apply them to the virtually undisputed facts, and say, "not guilty." Sometimes, you need the jury to tell the judge that his interpretation of the law is wrong.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Long time, no blog . . .

Yeah, I know you've heard that before. I apologize. Circumstances have conspired against me. So, here's an update:

I have moved from juvenile court to adult felonies. I was really torn when I was asked to make the move. It was considered an advancement in the office, but I had really grown to love juvenile work. I missed being able to do jury trials (and having my clients have the RIGHT to a jury trial), but I knew I would miss the kids. So far, though, I am happy where I am. I have been back in front of a few juries with pretty good results so far.

I am still busier than ever--the life of a public defender. And things at my office are far from perfect. But, what has inspired me to get back into blogging is what is going on at my old office in Dallas. They are really suffering. They are being messed with in the extreme by the political forces in the county, and good, experienced public defenders are quitting because they don't believe they can meet their ethical obligations to their clients under the quota system that has been imposed there.

My thoughts go out to all my former colleagues there in Dallas, whether they have chosen to leave or are trying to stick it out. I don't know what I would do if I were still there. On one hand, I respect those who have quit because they do not believe that they can fulfill their ethical obligations to provide zealous representation under the overly burdensome caseload standards that have been imposed. On the other hand, I respect those who are staying because they know that good, ethical attorneys need to be there to represent the indigent accused. I wish them all the best and hope that changes will be coming. (For more information about the situation in Dallas, check out Grits for Breakfast. As per usual, he is all over the issue.)

Hopefully, it won't be another year before my next post!

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