Thursday, October 27, 2005

How innocent people get convicted

without any prosecutorial misconduct: An acquaintance of mine recently served on a jury in a criminal case. I asked her about it, expecting to hear just a mildly entertaining account of the case. What I heard was haunting.

The defendant was charged with kidnapping. The body of his girlfriend was found on the road, in front of a police station; she had died of head injuries. A few days later, the defendant came forward (or the police found him - I'm not clear on how the police became aware of him): She had been riding with him, and he claimed, jumped out of the car while they were arguing. He didn't know she had been hurt and kept on driving.

As my acquaintance - I'll call her Jane - related the facts, the defendant and his girlfriend had broken up and reconciled a number of times. She thought the case was a domestic argument that got out of hand.

"So y'all didn't convict him?" I asked.

They had. Jane went on: The girlfriend needed a ride home from work. Her co-workers were prepared to give her a ride, but as they were leaving, the defendant pulled up and said something like "I'm here to pick you up." And the girlfriend willingly got in the car with him.

I was confused. "How do you get kidnapping out of that?" I asked.

Jane said that the prosecutor presented testimony that the defendant had grabbed the girlfriend's arm when she was getting into his vehicle, but the defense had shown the jury the very high-heeled boots the girlfriend was wearing - it was equally plausible to Jane that the defendant just took her arm to steady her. Especially since, evidently, the defendant had not at any point yelled for help.

And then there no eyewitnesses to what had happened between the defendant and his girlfriend between the time he picked her up and the time her body was found. The defendant said they had argued, and she had jumped out of the car. It happened in front of the police station, and he just kept on driving, not knowing, he said, that she had gotten hurt. He assumed that she was going to go inside the police station and get help.

"I still don't see how you get kidnapping out of those facts," I said.

Jane said, "Well, he was driving a different car" - not his usual vehicle.

Me: "But what difference would that make?"

Jane: "I don't know . . . you had to be there . . ."

Me: "Whaddaya mean, you don't know? You convicted him!"

At this point Jane started crying and I instantly felt like a complete heel. "Oh, no, please don't cry!" I said. "I didn't mean to browbeat you!"

Jane was truly distraught, and I felt awful for not realizing how upsetting the experience had been for her. Still, I was troubled because it seemed apparent to me that Jane didn't think the guy was guilty. After she calmed down, she told me that she had ultimately voted to convict because the jury was given a copy of the kidnapping statute, and, as she put it, the state had only to prove one part of it.

"So what part did the state prove?" I asked. Jane stammered something about the part about forcing someone: He had taken her arm, when they got in the car.

"But you don't think he forced her?" I asked. No, she didn't. Basically, not only did she think the state had failed to carry its burden of proof, she didn't think the guy was guilty of kidnapping. If I understood her correctly she thought that they had just had a fight, one of many in their relationship, and in the heat of argument the woman jumped out of the car and was, tragically, fatally injured.

When the jury took the first vote, Jane said, eight jurors voted not guilty. As deliberations went on, the other jurors - two in particular - just ground the holdouts down. The two kept referring to their own history of domestic abuse - even though there was no evidence introduced that the defendant had ever abused the girlfriend. One of the jurors said that she had been in an abusive relationship and that said that a person could get so desperate she would jump out of a moving car. The juror made reference to an Oprah show she had seen about abusive relationships.

"That's not evidence!" I screeched.

"I know, I know," said Jane.

Had I been in that jury room, I guess I could have recollected how I once got into a big screaming fight with a (non-abusive) ex-boyfriend, who had not kidnapped me, and jumped out of his (slowly) moving truck onto the highway. That's not evidence, either, but it's at least as relevant as the other juror's experience.

Jane had been the last holdout on the jury. She finally was persuaded to vote guilty by the other jurors. It seemed to me that she regretted it. If Jane weren't such a truly sensitive, gentle person, I would have asked her more questions about what finally made her change her vote, but it was obvious that the whole experience had been pretty upsetting for her.

So I let it go. But I'll always be haunted by the thought of jurors in criminal cases letting old Oprah shows supersede actual evidence.


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