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Justice Is Done

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Lots of folks talking today about the Jerry Sandusky verdict. I’d say it’s a perfect example of the judicial system getting it right.

In a past life, I was a newspaper reporter. For the better part of 15 years, I covered cops and courts on a regular basis. I reported on thousands of arrests, hundreds of trials.

Covering a trial as a journalist really is a unique position. From a seat in the courtroom from start to finish, you see things from the jury’s perspective, of course. But especially in a state with strong open records laws, you’re privy to much more information than the jury ever sees. You get to report things the judge rules inadmissible, that the jury never hears. You get to report the conferences between prosecutors, defense lawyers and the judge that the jury leaves the room for. You have so much more information than the jury can even imagine.

You also learn pretty quickly to pick up on the lawyers’ maneuvering. You come to know that Prosecutor A builds a case quietly, methodically, piling fact upon fact to devastating effect. You discover that Defense Attorney B pounds the table, implies the prosecution’s star witness would sleep with his own mother while robbing his grandfather. Another prosecutor turns every trial into an old-time tent revival, with the defendant as either the devil or Judas — take your pick. The well-heeled, soft-spoken defense lawyer calmly lays out the facts, but does so  in a way that some jurors will have trouble telling which way is up when she’s done.

But then you see another pattern emerging. The six, or 12, ordinary citizens sitting in the jury box, do their job. They hear the evidence, and they’re able to put the smoke and mirrors aside.

In all the trials I sat through in those 15 years, I’d have to say the jury — based ONLY on what they actually saw and heard — got it right about 90 to 95 percent of the time. Which is to say, they voted the way I would have, had I been in their place.

Were they perfect? No. There were a few times when I left the courtroom shaking my head, sometimes muttering “what the [bleep] were they thinking?”  But the vast majority of the time, they got it right.

Based on what I know about the Sandusky case — which in this case, is far LESS than the jury did — this is one of those times they absolutely got it right.

Lots of us wondered whether a group of people with strong ties to Penn State could reach a fair verdict of someone who was such a visible part of their community. I’m happy to say they did.

Well done, jurors. Thank you.

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Of Justice and Juries

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Much has been said and written in recent years about criminal defendants, and juries who, at least in the court of public opinion, “get it wrong.”

Think Casey Anthony. Think O.J. Simpson. Think Rodney King, or Reginald Denny. Consider any number of high profile cases in your own community over the past 20 years.

You know what the jury decided. You have an opinion about whether the verdict reached by your fellow citizens was justice or travesty. And you’re entitled to that opinion. But the next time you’re ranting to the computer screen, newspaper or television about a jury that blew it, consider this: Had you been in their shoes, you might have done the same thing.

Easy for you to say, Walrus. What makes you such an expert?

Well, in a previous life, I spent more than a decade as a journalist, most of it covering cops and courts. I sat through hundreds of trials, ranging from petty theft to murder. And in trials where I observed and reported on the entire trial, I found that I agreed with the jury’s verdict far more often than not —  based solely on what the jury saw and heard.

That’s the secret. All of us outside the courtroom see and hear much more about any high profile case than the jury ever will. Judicial rules control every piece of evidence any jury will see, hear or discuss. Especially in criminal trials, the burden of proof is extraordinarily high — beyond a reasonable doubt.

That’s as it should be. It should be a difficult process to take away someone’s freedom. Do you really want to live in a country where it isn’t?

The actual process of a trial is not unlike a stage play, written by both prosecutors and defense attorneys, with the judge acting as an editor and the jury as an audience.  Everything a jury sees or hears is in essence, scripted.

All the drama that precedes the trial — all the wrangling over what evidence is and isn’t admissible, statements made to the press, speculation by televised talking heads — is backstage. The jury won’t see evidence that isn’t admitted, won’t hear lawyers talking about their client’s mental state on the Today Show, won’t observe Nancy Grace’s outrage that the prosecutor isn’t doing things the way she would.

That means the jury is operating with a limited set of facts. Within that set of facts, they must render their decision. And so they do. They make their decision based only on what they have to work with.

As a reporter, I often had plenty of information that juries didn’t. On that basis, I could have reasons to dispute the verdicts. But considering only the information jurors actually saw and heard, I found I agreed with them about 95 percent of the time. Did I think justice was served? Most of the time, yes.

Is the system perfect? Of course not. Could it be improved? Sure. But just for sake of argument, say your son or daughter was the defendant. Would you really want the jury to hear Nancy Grace’s assessment of their guilt or innocence before delivering a verdict?

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