Wednesday, July 6, 2011
Is Our Justice System Broken?
Several high profile cases in recent years have rocked the nation, making court watchers wonder if our judicial system is broken or perhaps in need of a major revision. Two cases in particular, the Scott Peterson case and the recent trial of Casey Anthony, have striking similarities despite the difference in the outcome. Peterson, you remember, had a missing wife, and a situation that challenged the dedicated efforts of the investigators to locate her remains. In Anthony’s case, it was a missing child and she had no credible explanation regarding the child’s whereabouts. Both of them mislead the authorities with explanations that were not plausible. Both of the cases involved circumstantial evidence. Peterson was convicted, while Anthony received a not guilty verdict from twelve of her peers. So what were the factors that make juries render different verdicts when the circumstances are so similar?
The defense team can augment hopelessly weak cases in several ways. One well-known defense is what is known in legal circles as the SODDI defense, which means ‘some other dude did it.’ The defense often plays hardball with reasonable doubt issues. The law does not require the state to provide answers to every question that might occur in the minds of the jurors. One of the best definitions of reasonable doubt is: ‘proof of such a convincing character that a reasonable person would not hesitate to rely and act upon it in the most important of his own affairs.’ No one actually saw the murder committed, the defense might tell the jury. In several high profile murder trials, jurors have explained their failure to convict by saying, “I didn’t see him/her do it.”
Another factor involving evidence is caused by heightened expectations from having watched CSI type programs where there is always DNA evidence that cannot be refuted. The average person serving on a jury is likely to doubt the ability of police investigators who can’t parade an endless supply of experts in front of them. Most of them don’t understand that police work usually doesn’t produce ‘hard evidence’ in the way the cast of a television production can.
Defense attorneys try to downplay any evidence presented by the prosecutor, often going to great lengths to tell the jury that the evidence is tainted, was planted by crooked investigators, sloppy lab work, etc.
Recently, there has been the emergence of what I call the ‘wildcard’ defense, which involves making a hapless victim of the accused. All of the other players in the trial are painted in the most despicable terms. Allegations of incest, sexual abuse, mental cruelty, or physical exploitation are presented as a daily diet to the jurors. The sad reality is the fact that it often works. Everyone loves the underdog, and if the defendant can be made to appear as the victim, it can sometimes secure a verdict of not guilty.
Often the process of vilifying the innocent starts in the opening statements by the defense team. Some or all of the seven deadly sins are mentioned, and it is alleged that the defendant has endured all of them at the hands of family, friends, or the deceased. As the trial continues, these allegations are often referred to, but never proven. The damage, however, is done as the jury starts to wrap their mind around these suggestions. The real issues are submerged in a morass of moral and emotional gush that has nothing to do with the evidence.
So, you may wonder, how do we correct this problem? I think our judicial system needs to require defense attorneys to provide evidence of everything introduced in the opening statements. Unless something is done to ‘fix’ the current system, we could eventually reach a point where conviction is impossible, and the ‘best legal system in the world’ will become a travesty.
Posted by Joe Prentis at 9:11 PM