Eyewitnesses can’t be trusted?

Here is an innocent man who spent 30 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. Seattle Times article. Because of cases like this, this Seattle criminal defense investigator is against the death penalty. Because of cases like this, this investigator is strongly motivated in my criminal defense and personal injury cases to get the best information from witnesses that I can and to expose unreliable witnesses when I find them.

Eyewitness identification is unreliable. We’ve known that for a very long time. An eyewitness can be honest, but wrong. An eyewitness can be confused by a variety of factors. An eyewitness can lie for a variety of reasons. An eyewitness can be manipulated by careless or unscrupulous law enforcement officers. In the absence of substantial collaborating evidence, why do we continue to accept eyewitness testimony as sufficient to convict anybody of anything?

Free Speech Subverted?

Free Speech Subverted?

Do political candidates, and those who support them, have a right to claim First Amendment rights to protect the lies they tell to gain office?

 


The First Amendment to our Constitution is in more danger today than probably at any time in our relatively brief history as a nation. A cursory check of the news on any given day is likely to turn up one or more stories that relate to threats to this statement of law. The first amendment to our Constitution covers a lot of ground. Today, I want to comment on one small piece of that ground. Over time and as events that tweak my curiosity and/or outrage develop, I’ll be coming back to the Bill of Rights and this Amendment with more posts.


Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. [My emphasis above]


I guess that in a situation where the Supreme Court  has enshrined the principle that the more money you have the more free speech you may exercise (http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-205.pdf), it’s not surprising that politicians and their supporters can commit the moral equivalent of a coup d’état by blatant lying and distortion of facts to gain public office. If yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater, when there is no fire, is not protected speech, how can political lying be protected speech? It seems to me that far more people end up harmed in the latter case.

Why would you want to help defend the guilty, Part 2

Because justice requires it

Justice doesn’t find the accused guilty or innocent until the trial is over, and maybe not even then. Has anyone ever been accused of a crime he or she did not commit? Unless you have been living in a cave somewhere, with no contact with the outside world, you know the answer to that question.

Even before the advent of DNA testing, it was not unusual to hear about a person tried and convicted of a crime who was later released after new evidence was presented or original evidence was refuted.

I’ve often wondered how many innocent people have been executed or have been left to serve out their terms in prison because they didn’t have the resources or the good luck to prove their innocence.

Why are innocent people sometimes convicted?

Because of the fallibility of juries of usually well-meaning citizens

Because of bigoted, bad-intentioned juries

Because of the errors, intended or unintended, of police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges

Because no system of justice is perfect

Because… Because… Because…

While our system of justice isn’t perfect, it is arguably the best in the world, if…

…if all players in the process are competent and do their best to fulfill their roles.

I firmly believe that if I do my job as the defense investigator and the police, the prosecutor, the defense attorney, the judge and the jury do theirs to the best of their abilities and with the best intentions, then justice has the best chance to be served.

For me the presumption of innocence is the critical underlying principle setting the tone for the process.

Anybody can accuse you of a crime, but for you to be held accountable for the alleged crime your guilt must proven beyond a reasonable doubt in a public court of law. It is my duty to play my role as the defense investigator competently and to the best of my ability because justice requires it.

Why would you want to help defend the guilty?

“Why would you want to help defend the guilty?”

“Do you want to help set a criminal free?”

I get asked that question all the time when I tell people I’m a criminal defense investigator. “What if the person you are helping to defend is really guilty? What if the defense attorney you work for on the case gets him acquitted and he walks free? How can you justify your part in his defense?”

I’ve been asked these and similar questions by some family and friends and by a few people whom I’ve just met. It usually happens just after they find out what I do for a living. These questions usually come from good and well-meaning people.

But the question shows that the person asking is woefully ignorant of our system of justice and its underlying principles. In my experience, it’s unusual to find a person who does understand, who isn’t in the business or wasn’t involved in a criminal or civil lawsuit.

I’m a private investigator, not a lawyer.

My job is to find and document information, gathered from a variety of sources, which my attorney/clients need to properly defend accused persons from criminal charges. I am not judge, jury or prosecutor. It is not my role to judge the accused, even if the accused has a criminal record.

I’ve developed an answer that seems to work for me and for my questioners.

Consider an answer in two parts

I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer to this sort of question has two elements: 1) an examination of the language we use and 2) a review of the basic legal principles involved. I’ll give the first part of my answer in this blog and the second part in the next blog, in about a week.

Is language part of the problem?

Why is it called criminal defense rather than defense of the accused? If a person accused in our court system is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty, why do we use a term that labels the person “criminal” before the trial is conducted and concluded?

I’m a criminal defense investigator. I work for criminal defense lawyers. We work to defend accused persons, only some of whom are truly guilty, truly criminals. The trial is where the guilt or innocence of the accused is determined.

Why is it guilty versus not-guilty instead of proven versus not-proven? In criminal cases the jury must find the accused guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” in order to convict. Doesn’t the use of “guilty” imply certainty? This term is subjective and less than absolutely certain.

A jury in a criminal case examines and evaluates the evidence and the arguments of opposing attorneys and then deliberates to come to a conclusion about guilt or innocence based on a judge’s instructions about the applicable law.

If a jury doesn’t deadlock, they come back to the courtroom after concluding their deliberations with a verdict of guilty (beyond a reasonable doubt) or not guilty (meaning that they have at least a reasonable doubt). Where is the certainty in this usage? Shouldn’t it be “proven” beyond a reasonable doubt or “not proven” beyond a reasonable doubt?

Words are powerful. They sometimes convey meaning beyond, or at odds with, the intent of the users and consequently program those who hear the words to misunderstand and prejudge.

Maybe people would have a better understanding if we were more precise in the language we use to discuss our criminal justice system and the people charged in that system with crimes.

Maybe my first jury experience would have been different had the language used been different and more precise.

Justice System Saved?

They didn’t have a case and they wasted my taxes, but the system ultimately worked.

My first and only experience on a jury was an eye-opener and, in fact, very disturbing. I had been called to jury duty a couple of times before but had never ended up serving. I was actually looking forward to the experience. I got more and less than I expected on the third call to duty when I survived the selection process and was actually chosen for the jury.

The defendant was charged with trading crack for cash. The SPD had been conducting a sting at the busy drug market on the SE corner of 2nd and Yesler in Seattle. SPD officers were everywhere in plainclothes and in uniform, in marked and unmarked cars and on bikes, on the street and on rooftops.

This should have been an easy bust but wasn’t as the seller spooked after taking the plainclothes  officer’s money and handing over the crack in a baggy. The seller made the trade while sitting in his idling car at the curb with the buyer standing on the sidewalk. Something about the situation caused the seller to panic and run.

He took off southbound on second and turned left to go east on Washington. He blew the 4-way stop at 3rd and the stop sign at 4th, a very busy, three lane northbound road. He headed uphill to 6th and turned north towards Yesler. He almost ran over two bicycle cops and evaded hot pursuit by an officer in a marked squad car when the officer stopped the pursuit for safety reasons.

The seller got away and was not arrested ‘til months later. He was arrested for the sell during the sting described above; the arrest was based on identification of the seller by the buying officer. The prosecutor decided there was enough evidence to support prosecution. This led to the trial where I got some education about how the system sometimes works.

The prosecution’s case consisted of: Officer X says the defendant was the person who sold him the crack. The prosecution had no other witnesses, no tie in to the seller’s vehicle, no marked money, nothing but the officer’s assertion.

The prosecution managed to mention that the defendant had a record. The judge rightly ordered this struck from the record and told the jury to ignore the information.

The defense denied the accusation and said the officer was mistaken. It came down to one man’s testimony versus the other’s. Prosecution and defense had made their cases; it was time for the jury to decide.

I was a bit perplexed. My reaction to the trial up to this point was that the defendant was likely guilty, but the prosecution hadn’t proved it. Furthermore, it seemed to me that the prosecution must have counted on the jury to be ignorant and prejudiced. I was wondering why the prosecutor had wasted our taxes for such a weak case.

The defense attorney had failed to point out the weakness of the prosecution’s case.

The judge’s instructions to us were to decide if the defendant was guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt. If a reasonable doubt existed, we were to find the defendant not guilty.

We began deliberating and immediately deadlocked; six said guilty and six said not guilty. Guilty versus not guilty really boiled down to six saying the prosecution had proven the defendant’s guilt, beyond a reasonable doubt, and six saying there was reasonable doubt of the defendant’s guilt and, therefore, we should find the defendant not guilty.

Notice that I said that six said he was guilty and six said there was insufficient evidence to affirm guilt. Actual guilt could never be known by anyone but god and the defendant. The faction that said he was guilty actually said that the defendant must be guilty because the police officer said he was.

On top of my observations about the prosecution and the defense now I had to reconcile the idea that a jury of twelve is not such a reliable group to make decisions having such consequences for a defendant’s life.

The bad thing was that six of twelve were so ignorant of the concepts of  “innocent until proven guilty” and “reasonable doubt” and so willing to bow down to the power of the government in the form of law enforcement. The good thing was that the other six of us were able to block a railroad job by the same forces.

A system in which the police, as agents of the government, have the power to act as law enforcement, judge, jury and executioner is commonly known as a fascist state. I still have concerns about the experience I had in that court. That experience still resonates in my experience as a private, legal investigator. It is one reason that I have such a burn about the work.

It takes diligence on the part of each player in this process to make it work properly. It is critical for the health of our system of laws that all citizens have an appreciation for how the law is supposed to work.

After all, whose interests are at stake in the court rooms of this country? If you don’t understand that it is the interests of us all that are at stake, we are in a whole lot of trouble.

You reactions? Your experiences?