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?

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.

Jury duty with a small stipend and a box lunch?

And no one has to go to jail?

Whether or not you have ever been on a jury, if you wish to have some experience and education on the matter, you might try what my wife and I have done and thoroughly enjoyed on a summer weekend for each of the last two years. We plan on doing it again next summer.

We act as jurors in mock civil and criminal trials argued by practicing lawyers in front of practicing judges.

The National Institute for Trial Advocacy (NITA) trains practicing lawyers to be more effective trial lawyers.

A bit about NITA from their website at http://www.nita.org/:

“NITA’s Mission Statement

“NITA, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, is a dedicated team of professors, judges and practicing lawyers who believe that skilled and ethical advocacy is a critical component of legal professionalism and all systems of dispute resolution that seek justice.

“NITA’s mission is to:

* Promote justice through effective and ethical advocacy;
* Train and mentor lawyers to be competent and ethical advocates in pursuit of justice; and
* Develop and teach trial advocacy skills to support and promote the effective and fair administration of justice.

“NITA’s Mission Statement defines NITA and articulates its Mission. We will fulfill our Mission through NITA’s Goals and Objectives to be carried out through a Strategic Plan outlining NITA’s programs and publications.

“NITA Long-Range Goals and Objectives

“NITA’s Goals and Objectives are to:

* Enable and encourage lawyers to become effective, ethical and professional advocates.
* Create and promote the highest quality professional and ethical advocacy training and educational materials.
* Support and assist the Judicial System in providing the important, effective administration and resolution of disputes.
* Encourage, support and assist advocacy training for and dedication to public service.”

You can participate for both days or either day. If you do both days, you hear a civil case on one day and a criminal case on the other.

You sit in court, listen to the arguments, select a jury foreman, weigh the evidence and present your verdict to the court.

One thing that happens in these mock trials that doesn’t happen in real life is the post-trial discussion involving the judge, the attorneys and the jurors. The trial experience and the post-trial discussion provide an incredibly educational and entertaining way to spend a day or two.

They give you a small stipend and a box lunch each day. You meet and spend the day with some really nice people.

Go to the NITA website at http://www.nita.org/and explore.

Find out where the programs entitled “Building Trial Skills” are being held and contact them about your interest in participating as a juror in the mock trials. If they haven’t already filled the juror pool, volunteer. I believe you will find the experience (plus the stipend and the lunch) to be well worth your time.