Due to the needs of clients, the sudden arrival of Summer and other factors, it has been too long since I was available to share with you my thoughts, opinions and information regarding the criminal justice system.
When last we had an opportunity to visit, it was Law Day. A lot has happened since that Spring day which have invoked or implicated the criminal justice system. An accused child-trafficker and molester was accused, detained and dispatched (by his own hand). Attacks by persons nominated White Supremacists have increased and two major shootings have filled the headlines. Fingers have been pointed and demands for action made. I saw a T-shirt on a woman at a fast food place last night which read, “Moms Demand Action” and referenced guns. Calls for stricter background checks and for the prohibition of certain types of firearms. The Supreme Court ended its term with some significant decisions which affect your rights as a citizen accused and in one case they made federal firearms prosecution a little harder for the government.
When these stories appear on the local or national news, modern practice seems to be an attempt to elicit a response from the viewer. The days of straight reporting in the vein of Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Edward R. Murrow and others seems somehow quaint in today’s “if it bleeds it leads” media environment. The Paul Newman movie [WUSA] from 1970, has a scene in which Pat Hingle’s character cynically tells Paul Newman’s that the news is like music, “people respond to it if you treat it right”. You might be wondering what any of this has to do with the criminal justice system. It is a valid question. The connection is such machinations affect the persons who are called to be jurors. It has become decidedly more difficult to maintain objectivity in this country with the rhetoric always rising to a shrill pitch regardless of its position on the political spectrum.
If the criminal justice system is to work as it is intended, then we as citizens need to resist the harsher edges of our society from hi-jacking the process. The appeal to mob rule is always strong, pleas by each side are emotion laden and superficially appealing. I am going to take one example, because it lends itself to the point. A shooter in El Paso, TX killed 22 people and injured 24 others. In Charleston, VA James Fields drove his car into a crowd killing one and injuring 28 others. Since the El Paso shooting there have been repeated demands for banning certain weapons and
for stricter background checks. Since the deliberate drive down in Charleston there have been no calls for car control or greater scrutiny of driver’s license applications. Logic would then dictate that killing and maiming with a car is less of an outrage than killing with a gun – this is, of course, preposterous. But it demonstrates the point of using bad acts to further unrelated agendas. These acts are about the attitudes of the people who committed them not their choice of weapons. Those who choose to kill on a large (or small) scale will find a way to carry out that desire. It is also not about mental health. Few mentally ill, that is crazy people, are violent. These attacks are done with sane minds but wrong attitudes.
From a criminal defense point of view, something does need to be changed. But bringing back the “Assault Weapons Ban” is not the answer, it wasn’t the answer when it existed. Banning cars won’t stop killers from killing. What we need to change is our attitude collectively. You as a potential juror or as a potential defendant should want a society which has not had its most important institutions undermined by those with a political agenda. When you sit on a jury, the only matters which should concern you are the facts of the case and the law to be applied. Then you should hold the prosecution to its proof beyond a reasonable doubt. I have heard a radio commentator deride this standard and call it a legal fiction, a criminal defense trick. It is not. He contended that all people violating the law by doing drugs should be convicted and sent up to prison. This same commentator, alternatively wanted all sorts of consideration when it came to light that he had an opioid addiction sufficient to warrant a criminal investigation and charging. This
commentator hired and excellent lawyer and worked a probationary deal with the charges being dismissed if he completed the probation. He continues to rail on the radio against the very things he used to go free.
We should all strive to be more circumspect when we are viewing events on the news or in our daily goings and coming. Rather than becoming immediately outraged or angry or other negative emotion, let’s take a breath and ask why is the story being presented in such an emotional manner. Notice when the newscaster tells you how you are going to feel by the next story. Why are you being set up? Reject the invitation to be part of the mob. It will make you a better citizen and a better juror. It might even help if you become a defendant. Next time, I hope to take you through the process of the investigation and filing of a criminal matter. It will, for many, be an eye opening trip.
As always, your rights use them or lose them.