From time to time, a criminal case will capture the imagination of society, from Pilate washing his hands of a sentence to the recent murder charges coming out of Georgia. As an attorney who has been working in the criminal justice system since the mid 00s, I have some thoughts on how to examine and assess a criminal cases. But this blog post would be hundreds of pages if I tried to cover that topic. Instead, I want to comment on the levels of knowledge in a popular criminal case.
Level 1 – The Participants
When I was a prosecutor, I used to tell juries, “we don’t have a mind reading machine to know exactly what someone was thinking; we have to infer intent from the circumstances.” Only the participants and victims of a crime know their innermost thoughts, and we can’t necessarily believe what they say about those thoughts. The wonderful characters who make up a criminal case often barely know what they were thinking, due to drugs, alcohol, and mental disabilities. Furthermore, a participant’s knowledge is subject to bias, tunnel vision, and forgetfulness.
Level 2 – The Attorneys
The prosecutor and defense attorney will have a vast amount of information, derived from the physical evidence, witness statements, rap sheets, and so forth. The attorneys will know things that the jury may never learn about, such as the criminal records of the accused and the victim.
Level 3 – The Jury
At trial the jury will receive the testimony, physical evidence, photos, videos, audio recordings, etc. This can take days, weeks or even months. Furthermore, a trial is a search for the truth that often take wild turns in the courtroom. The bright lights of the witness box can turn a case on its head. Doors that were locked, suddenly become unlocked.
Accordingly, at the beginning of the trial, the judge will instruct the jurors to not form any opinions about the case until the time for deliberations. The jurors must swear an oath to be impartial judges of the facts and to follow the court’s instructions on the law.
Level 4 – Trial By Twitter
In contrast, those of us who follow a case or controversy in the news have extremely limited information. We rely on news reports that are intended to sensationalize a story and generate clicks. Videos might be edited to obscure the critical moment, or audio redacted to stir interest in the story. If you happen to spend several hours reading about a case, rest assured, that is a fraction of the time it takes to properly review a criminal case.
What Is Your Agenda, Mr. Author?
Remember that mind reader machine I mentioned earlier? Likely, some readers are trying to figure out my agenda. So let me give you my objective for writing this blog post. Our criminal justice system requires the careful, rational, and impartial participation of jurors. In California, a court will instruct every jury that “Your verdict must be based only on the evidence presented during trial in this court and the law as I provide it to you.” Later, the judge will say “Do not let bias, sympathy, prejudice, or public opinion inﬂuence your decision.” We, as citizens who want the truth to prevail, should be mindful of these instructions.
This does not mean that we should be discouraged from commenting on a case. Sometimes a case may be an example of a wider systemic problem that deserves attention. Sometimes a murder case is just a good diversion from the mundane. But ultimately, when the case is called and the jury sworn, it will be an impartial search for the truth, as it should be in the public square.