Friday, September 9, 2011

When The System DOES NOT Work

by Earl Staggs

Some decisions around my house are simple for my wife and me. Who takes out the trash cans on Sunday evening? If there’s a flying insect in the house, who chases it down?

More important decisions, however, are different. Say we have to decide on a big purchase, a new car, for example. We shop, we test drive, we ask questions we Google. In short, we want all the information available and all the facts we can get our hands on before we make a critical decision. I think that’s the same for most people.

Can you imagine people having to make major decisions without knowing all the facts?

It happens all the time.

Imagine twelve people confined in a room with the responsibility of deciding the future of someone’s life. Suppose their decision is whether a person lives or dies? What can be more important than that?

Now imagine those twelve people are not allowed to know all the facts. Imagine some information which would affect their decision is withheld from them.

It happens all the time.

I’m talking about a jury, of course, and I’m talking about situations in which certain facts and information are declared “inadmissible” by a judge. I’m talking about a jury being “sequestered” so they cannot be privy to what’s going on in the outside world. After all, they may hear or see something which could have an impact on their decision. Heaven – or rather, His Honor -- forbid they should have all the facts related to the guilt or innocence of the accused.

What’s wrong with this picture? The Law is getting in the way of justice.

It happens all the time.

It happened in the O. J. Simpson case. It happened in the Casey Anthony case. Those are only the two best known examples. After the Simpson trial, more than one juror remarked to the effect that if they’d known such and such, their decision would have been different. During the Anthony trial, one of the TV analysts said basically the same thing: “If they jury knew such and such, their decision would be easy.”

Why do these things happen? Because The Law gets in the way of justice. The Law is too often treated as an entity which must be adhered to strictly as written even if justice is not served. I think that’s wrong, wrong, wrong. The Law is supposed to be a tool for achieving justice. The intent of the law should be applied, not the letter of the law.

Suppose my wife and I are shopping for a new car. We are not allowed to know the miles per gallon of the different makes. We are not allowed to know that one particular make has experienced a large number of brake failures. That information might affect our decision, you see. Those facts might prejudice our choice of one make over another.

Suppose a man is accused of raping and murdering a ten-year-old girl. The jury is not allowed to know this man has been accused of rape and murder three times in the past. The man’s record of six convictions for spousal abuse is declared inadmissible. That information, you see, might prejudice the jury against this man.

Damn right it would. It most certainly would and it most certainly should. How can any fact be withheld if that fact would have an impact on making the right decision?

Yet, it happens all the time.

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Jean Henry Mead said...

You're right, Earl. Our justice system is far from perfect but it's all we've got. We'll never know how many innocent people have been imprisoned and executed because all the evidence wasn't admissable in court.

Earl Staggs said...

Jean, it's tragic that innocent people are imprisoned and even executed, but that's more proof that the system has serious flaws. We may have the best legal system on the planet, but that doesn't mean we should not try to make it better.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I couldn't agree with you more.

Jaden Terrell said...

Good points, Earl. A homicide detective spoke at our Sisters in Crime meeting on Tuesday. He told boat finding 3 drops of a woman's blood in a truck. They knew the woman was dead, because the truck was covered in the blood of other women, all of whom had been found murdered. But they knew they wouldn't be able to tell a jury about the other murders, so they didn't even bother to charge the driver for the one with so little blood. If the body and other evidence turn up, they'll charge him then.