Reasonable Doubt

Reasonable Doubt

Not GuiltyThis last week, I had the honor and frustration of serving on a jury in a criminal trial.  By working with so many stakeholders in my day-to-day activities, I figured it shouldn’t be too difficult to use the same methods with witnesses and with my jury peers.  What was the goal?  Given the evidence, presented by both the prosecution and the defense, decide (as a group) if the defendant had been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  Unfortunately, being a juror was unlike managing regular stakeholders, where they can all maintain their own perspective throughout a project.  As a member of the jury, we had to offer a unanimous verdict; Guilty or Not Guilty.  The other very challenging thing we dealt with was a subjective term (compared to objective) called reasonable doubt.  Until all of the evidence was presented and we were asked to deliberate on the verdict, we were not allowed to speak to each other.  Only at that time were we able to define what reasonable doubt was.  Only then were we allowed to compare notes from the trial and come to a collective agreement.

So that you understand why it was so challenging for use to reach our verdict, I’ll condense two days of testimony into a few paragraphs.

The victim was a 73-year-old woman.  The defendant was a 21-year-old man.  After arriving home from taking the bus one dark winter night, the victim said she was assaulted by the defendant on her doorstep and her purse was stolen.  When she appeared on the stand, she said she had never seen him (the defendant) before but she would never forget his face.  When interviewed by the police the night of the attack, her son who lived with her told the police that she described the attacker to him as looking like the boy who had helped her with her groceries in the past.  The son knew who had helped her in the past and gave the police a name.  The victim was sent to the hospital and the police met her there with a series of photographs to make a positive identification.  She pointed to the defendant’s picture and then another saying it he looks like him but then pointed back to the defendant and said that it was him, adding that he was on the bus with her that night.  The officer did NOT circle the photo like he normally did, when a victim makes a 100% positive ID of an attacker.

The day after the attack, the defendant was interviewed by the police.  He said he remembers seeing her on the bus but he could never do such a thing to her.  He said that he had helped her with her groceries in the past.  When he was asked where he was at the time of the assault, he said he was at his cousin’s house playing video games.  Oddly enough, the cousin never appeared in court to corroborate his story.  When the cousin’s wife testified, she said he was not there that night.

There was no other evidence offered.  The contents of the purse were never found.  The cell phone and food stamp card in the purse were never used.  So, what happened when the jury was asked to deliberate?  We compared notes and we debated.  When the foreman asked how many of us thought he was guilty, almost all of us put up our hands.  When the foreman asked who thought the prosecution had proved his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, everyone put there hands down but one guy.

We needed to have 100% agreement.

My argument to him was, it would be a terrible tragedy that IF this guy would be convicted of a crime for no other reason than he had helped this lady with her groceries in the past and he was on that bus that night.  Nobody was debating, including the defendant, if he was on the bus or if he had helped her with her groceries before.  But nobody could prove that he was at the scene of the crime.  By reading his body language, several of us believed he was not an innocent person but we were uncertain he was guilty of this particular crime.  The final juror lamented and we rendered a verdict of not guilty.

The defendant burst into tears as our foreman stated not guilty to each of the three counts.  The prosecution then asked each of us to stand and respond guilty or not guilty.  One by one, we responded “Not Guilty”.  The judge told the defendant he was free to go.  We were then told to return to the jury room.  We all agreed we should have felt more satisfaction in freeing this guy.  Moments later, the judge entered the chamber and informed us that the defendant had been charged in the past with the same thing, assault and theft.  She said the court was not allowed to give us this information and added that she believed, based on the evidence presented, that we would find him not guilty.

As I shook my head, the juror who sat next to me in the jury box said the right thing.

Though knowing this guy has done this before kind of bothers me, but I would rather set a guilty man free than to convict an innocent one.

Image: Pictofigo

6 Replies to “Reasonable Doubt”

  1. I sat on a jury trial for a non-criminal complain (civil case), and I had the impression that neither the defense nor the prosecution had bothered to do their homework and present the information we needed to make a real decision. There were all sorts of aspects that we would have like to know as a jury that simply were not presented.

    1. That definitely happened to us as well. The prosecution could have done a better job. It was a tragedy that this happened to this poor lady (the victim). There just weren’t enough facts to convict! Like I said in the post, most of us thought he was guilty of something but we had to presume he was innocent of these specific charges, until all of the facts were presented. They didn’t prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. When the prosecution said they had no more witnesses, a few of us on the jury just looked at each other. We thought we were only half way done.

      1. Derek, one of the reasons I feel you did the right thing was your description of her seemingly flawed identification of the attacker. Also, I don’t know if you are aware of the research, which ironically cannot be presented in a court room, but eyewitness recollections and identifications are notoriously flawed. Heck we’ve seen this in the countless men who were put in prison for rape based on the women who were attacked tragically misidentifying them through no fault of their own. So it would have been very easy for this lady to unknowingly convince herself that the attacker was the one who delivered groceries.

        1. That’s what the judge told us, after the fact. She said it’s an old law school exercise. A guy runs in, robs the law professor in front of the class, and then runs out. Everyone is asked to describe him. Some didn’t realize the guy was in a bunny costume. I still feel bad for the victim. Even if I was unsure as to who the attacker was, I knew exactly who the victim was.

    1. David, thank you for the support. It was much harder than I thought it would be. I thought my response would be very binary, either they are guilty or not guilty. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was a very educational experience.

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