Friday, January 30, 2009

Guilty Until Proven Guilty

I like the idea of innocent until proven guilty. But it doesn't always seem to work that way.

The first time I sat on a jury, I was shocked when we were told that we would be passing judgment on a man accused of assault with a deadly weapon, a sledge hammer. The defendant was a big burly guy in his thirties. The alleged victim was a petite, middle-aged mom type.

My brain switched into feverish overdrive, as I considered what kind of man would go after a woman with a sledge hammer. Intellectually I was aware that he was innocent until proven guilty. However, my gut feel was that we needed to move quickly through the trial and hang, draw and quarter the wretch. The prosecutor made it clear that the defendant was a dangerous man. I felt a little nervous being in the same room with him. What if he grabbed a chair and attacked the jury?
After many hours of testimony, the real story seemed to emerge. The defendant and his little
girl had to scurry to safety to avoid being run over by a speeding car driven by a local hoodlum . I shall refer to him as "the dude". The dude lived with friends in a shabby vacation cabin nearby. The defendant knew the dude well enough to believe that talking to him would be counterproductive. However, he noted that the dude's parents were visiting.

"Maybe they will be reasonable", he thought.

Big mistake.

The defendant drove to the cabin and got out of his pickup to make his complaint. The dude's mom (I shall refer to her as "the witch".) grabbed a shovel and ran toward the defendant. The defendant picked a sledge hammer from the bed of his truck and held it up saying, "Look, I have a weapon too, but let's be reasonable". The witch lowered the shovel and the defendant put the sledge hammer back in his truck

As the defendant turned back from tidying up his tools, he met the dude charging him with a hatchet. The dude and the defendant wrestled. The dude chopped at the defendant's head and hands. Defense evidence included vivid photos of the resultant carnage.

Meanwhile, the dude's dad ("Clueless", not his name but rather a derisive term) began searching beneath the seat of his automobile. It was conjectured that fire arms are often kept under auto seats, but that was grist for another trial.

Clueless refused to testify on the grounds it might be self-incriminating. We were instructed to ignore him. I felt I was trying to overlook a man who refused to decry a pit bull who had savaged a neighbor.

Jury deliberations created new problems.

One juror proclaimed she had prayed about the case with her husband, and God had shown her that the defendant was innocent. She offered to sit quietly and read her bible while she ignored our discussion.

The first secret ballot, (and the second, and the third, etc) was 11 to 1 in favor of the defendant. We were instructed to stay in the jury room until we arrived at a unanimous decision. The alternative was to call a mistrial. The judge was willing to let us stay in the jury room for days, if necessary, to avoid a mistrial.

As foreman, I reasoned with, exhorted, and begged my fellow jurors. One by one, they said "I didn't vote him guilty". Just one sad little man remained quiet about his vote. Nonetheless, he insisted that the act of picking up a sledge hammer and holding it in front of the witch constituted assault with a deadly weapon. We paused to ask the judge for clarification. He refused and sent us back to our deliberations.

I became frustrated . I picked up the sledge hammer that lay as evidence on the table in our midst. I shook it in the sad little man's face.

"There! Call the cops. I assaulted you with a deadly weapon."

"Maybe we should conduct another secret ballot" said the sad little man.

We did. It was 12-0.
Post a Comment