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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Blogger S said...

This spring, the Kansas Supreme Court found under our state constitution (cert proof!) that juveniles do have a right to a jury trial. If only more states would follow suit because there are so many cases like yours where a jury would see through the case. I think juvenile cases are particularly likely to be the types of cases where a jury might be thinking, "Why was this charged?"

9/22/2008 7:14 AM  
Blogger 123txpublicdefender123 said...

I read that case and I agree with you. I know there are people in Washington that are worried that if juveniles got juries, then their juvenile "strike" offenses would start counting as actual strikes for the 3-strikes law, but I don't think it is right to shortchange juveniles their right to a jury trial because of a policy concern that it MIGHT harm those who later commit strike offenses as adults. I can't tell you how many cases I advised my juvenile client to accept a plea bargain on where I would have advised they go to trial if they could have had a jury.
And that is not even considering the fact that many of these juvenile court commissioners and judges that try these cases know WAY more stuff about the kid then an impartial trier of fact ever should. They can try all they want to set that aside, but they are only human.

9/22/2008 10:19 AM  
Blogger Glen Graham said...

I adamantly support the jury system and I would also question prior convictions of juveniles who are denied that right. There is a danger that jurors can become overly "emotional" and ignore the instructions. Prosecutors claim to represent the "people" or the "state" or the "government" when in fact they are merely an arm of the executive branch of some governmental entity (usually appointed by their boss for political reasons) and do not represent the people anymore than the public defender represents the people. Somebody signs their paychecks and it is not the people. Most prosecutors can be fired at will by their "bosses" which is the supervising prosecutor. Prosecutors say "send a message" and other arguments. Prosecutrs will argue that the police did their jobs now you do yours. A jurors duties are listed in the jury instructions. They are to decide the case based upon the evidence free from passion or prejudice. Prosecutors attempt to redefine the roles of jurors.
There is always a danger that a jury can become like a mob mentality, become overly emotional, convict the defendant based upon their prior record rather than the sufficiency of the evidence or convict the defendant based upon irrelevant factors and impose unnecessarily harsh sentences. Jurors should be reminded their duties are defined by the jury instructions and not to decide the case based upon passion or prejudice but to make a reasoned judgement. Jurors become the judges of the facts and it is like twelve judges judging the facts for themselves. Ideally, jurors should be reminded to allow each juror to participate otherwise it is not really a fair or accurate jury decision. Conservative out-spoken managerial types try to push their agenda through. Shy, soft spoken intellectuals sometimes cave in. Thinking like a juror thinks and role playing being a juror to make the most successful arguments are tricky but can be done. Someone said practice your "story" line to other ordinary people for effective ideas even if you do not have a mock jury or trial consultant. Sorry, got a little off topic.
Yours in the Defense of Fellow Human Beings,
Glen R. Graham, Tulsa Criminal Attorney, Tulsa, Oklahoma

9/22/2008 5:45 PM  
Anonymous Another PD said...

First, congratulations on the jury verdict--those are not common here in West Tennessee.

Juveniles and juries? Sure for anything that has ramifications as adults (sentence enhancers, Registries, etc.) but the system would become unwieldy indeed if a jury was brought for every petition.

My juvenile judge is much more balanced and fair than my criminal court judge. I have no fears of a bench trial in juvenile court, and win them routinely. The judge applies the law, considers my arguments and motions, and renders a valid legal decision--again unlike my criminal court judge.

Funny that they're the same person wearing different hats!

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Blogger IMR2D2 said...

You got LUCKY. Juries often don't care about the law, they just go with their gut-instinct--i.e. pure prejudice and snap judgments.

If a judge ignores the law then you can appeal and have him sanctioned and voted out of office etc; however juries do it all the time and it doesn't matter.

That's how jury-consultation services work, i.e. they cater to the jury's prejudices, like picking women who said that Nicole Brown Simpson "had it coming."

Juries are only good to provide some check on government-railroading and kangaro-courts, but that's about it; a good law firm can turn a jury into a puppet-show through consultation, selection and research: it's not law, it's animal-behavior science

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