Monday, November 15, 2010

Innocent until proven guilty~

I recently sat in an overheated courtroom with seventy-five prospective jurors waiting to be called to fill twelve seats, but most hoping to go home. As the judge read the charges there were audible gasps from many of the jurors, angry shakes of the head, disgusted faces. I too recoiled inwardly—it was an ugly crime: "rape of a child with force," and  "assault on a retarded person."

When introduced, the defendant stood and turned to face us, expressionless as coached, lest we judge the curve of his mouth or the level of an eyebrow. We are primed, each of us, to read subtle facial and body language cues. We often form a first impression in seconds. While we may come to change that impression in time, it's not easy. First impressions are potent.

There is a definite prejudice against those accused of crime, studies show. There's an initial presumption of guilt. After all, people think, this person has been arrested, he's been charged, and he's sitting in court with a lawyer, for Pete's sake.

Several times the judge reminded us of that most basic tenet of criminal law: a defendant is innocent until proven guilty.

While waiting through the lengthy voir dire, the tension was palpable. One person after another was excused from serving on the jury.  On their way out, most walked past the defendant without looking at him, but several gave him a dark look, a glare that said, "What a nasty beast you are."

Right now he's innocent, I reminded myself as I waited. For this day, at least, he's innocent. The burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt to a moral certainty."

By the end of the day, eight jurors were selected from the pool. I was one of them. The jury was filled the next day, and we settled into our seats to hear the details of the case.

After two days of testimony it became apparent to the dozen of us that there was no evidence that could convince us to convict this young man.

"Not guilty on both counts," was our verdict.

The defendant let go his expressionless demeanor and put his face in his hands and cried. So did his mother. And in the privacy of the juror's room, so did a juror or two.

It's so easy to form an opinion based on any number of things other than the actual evidence. So human…and so dangerous.  And yet, could this young man have actually "done something" as one of the jurors wondered as we were deliberating?

Of course. But there was nothing to prove it beyond a shadow of doubt. As for me, I don't think there was even a shadow.


Wanda said...

I could feel the atmosphere in the room as I read each line.

I glad it turned out the way it did.

I've never sat on a jury. Been dismissed several times. My dearest served a foreman on a jury, and his thoughts on the process are similar to your...remembering "Innocent until proven guilty!

The photography is wonderful.

My Pink flower is posted!!! :)

Gary said...

I'm one of those "arrested ... he's gotta be guilty" types, but I'd like to think I would be able to say "not guilty."

I don't think I could serve on a jury, not one where a person might end up in prison. I'm too caught up by my own experience with lies.

I congratulate you for the courage to do your duty.

Pauline said...

A dear friend was convicted on flimsy evidence and was incarcerated. It took two years for friends and family to get enough money together to hire a new lawyer who uncovered enough "withheld" evidence to force a new trial and a declaration of his innocence. I'm glad you had the courage to sit on a jury and be willing to alter any pre-judging you might have done.

deanna said...

Your experience makes quite a story. Compelling. I hope to remember it if I'm ever chosen to serve on a jury.

Linda Myers said...

Good for you. You and your fellow jurors made a profound difference in that young man's life.

Jo said...

Omigoodness, Ruth, that made me cry. One thing I have always abhored is injustice and prejudice. Good for you and the other jurors for being able to get to the truth.

(It's really nice to see you again...!)

Tere said...

When I served on jury duty this spring, I was in a similar situation. I had served on a theft of property case and had been called back to possibly sit on another case. There was a man charged with rape of a child and, like your situation, there were gasps and tears amongst the jury pool when the charges were announced. Several people were dismissed or asked to be relieved due to personal experiences. I was a little terrified that I might be chosen but they were able to fill the jury before I was questioned. I was not sure I could sit there and hear the evidence.

I work with young children every day and although I pride myself on being non-judgemental and fair, I felt like it would have to be abundantly clear to me the man was innocent for me to vote not guilty.

Luckily I didn't have to.

Ruth D~ said...

I understand completely, Tere. And felt the same. And was clear to all of us that we couldn't convict. It's a long story for here, but I can email you the details. I wrote them for someone else, so I can copy and paste.

Belladonna said...

My experience has been the flip side - I worked with people who HAD been convicted, had served serious time in prison and were being released back into the community. One thing I learned from working with people caught up in the criminal justice system was that "not guilty" is not the same thing as being innocent. Likewise, sometimes those convicted of the vilest of crimes get labelled in ways that don't even come close to reflecting what actually took place.

You saw first hand the stigma surrounding a person who had been accused and arrested. I've seen the shame and hostility surrounding people who have made serious mistakes and are trying to salvage their lives after paying all the court asked.

We hear "sex offender" and conjure up images of boogie men perverts when sometimes the circumstances are anything but. Sadly, other times unspeakable depravity is cloaked by legalistic technicalities. The complex dance of how evidence is presented or kept from view in the courts too often is shaped more by political agendas that any real quest for truth.

You are absolutely right that many consider an arrest in and of itself to be a "smoking gun" that gives evidence of wrong doing. I'm glad the jury you served on was able to see past that.

Russell said...

It is January 2 and I am just seeing this excellent post.

If you do not mind, I would like to make a copy of your writing and pass it out to my business law students. I think it would be good for them to read such an excellent article.

I confess, even as a lawyer I have the "guilty unless proven innocent" mentality more often than not. I suppose it is human nature.

I really dislike the system that allows some defendants to get off on some technicality that flies in the face of common sense.

I won't ramble on and on but did want you to know I truly appreciated your words.

Take care.

Navi said...

A really touching story, I'll definitely come back to read some more. I found the link to your blog from your flickr account!!
Good Night and Happy New Year!!!