Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Jury Duty

In October I sat among twelve people who convicted a man of first-degree murder. A grim and solemn occasion. The accused was charged with the murder of his infant daughter and the assault of his daughter's mother. The woman, who was six months pregnant at the time, was repeatedly punched in her swollen abdomen by a stranger. The baby girl was born prematurely as a result of the assault, and she died nine days later. The state alleged that the father planned the crime with the attacker, and that in so doing he had procured the death of his daughter.

The prosecution laid out a damning circumstantial case against the defendant, but there was no evidence presented in the trial that directly linked the two men together in this crime. The defense attorney seized upon this apparent factual gap, and in his closing arguments, he brought up an old logical and scientific adage, "you can't prove a negative." He was trying to say that the defendant could never "prove" that he wasn't involved, and since the prosecution did not definitively show that he was, the jury must acquit his client.

I wrestled with this argument during deliberations and afterward. It has a powerful resonance! Did that gap in evidence constitute "reasonable doubt"? But I kept coming back to the judge's instructions: "intent, being a process of the mind, is wholly subjective and may not be demonstrable through direct evidence alone," and again "use the evidence presented, your knowledge, experience, and common sense to reach your verdict."

In the end, the circumstantial case was enough for me. I did my best to persuade my fellow jurors, and together we voted to convict the defendant on all charges: first degree murder with premeditation; second degree murder with intent; and first degree assault, great bodily harm. In a bit of courtroom theatrics, the defendant's brother stormed out, slamming the door with terrific force. But our service was complete.

After the trial, in chambers, the judge revealed that the man who committed the assault, who had plead guilty and is serving forty years for his role in the attack, refused to testify at the last moment. He had been threatened by the defendant that we had just convicted! I think that assuaged some of the jurors who felt that we needed to hear the attacker's testimony in order to convict on all counts. After all, his testimony had been promised in the prosecution's opening remarks, and it would have filled the evidentiary gap in the case. It was the 'pat on the back' that they had done the right thing.

For me, however, it was sobering: in making an argument, I tend to assume a posture of certainty. Whether they realize it or not, I think most people do. It is more expedient; it inoculates oneself against errors and the unknown. Unfortunately, this posture does not help to reveal truth, and can all-too-easily obscure it. Lesson learned. Again.

Apart from the epistemological challenges that I continue to dwell upon in the aftermath of this case, there is also the question of imposing a first-degree murder sentence upon someone for the death of a fetus. In retrospect, I wish I had discussed this question with my fellow jurors. By doing what they did, these men did commit murder; the law is very clear on this point. But it also leaves me unsatisfied. I've been a fairly strong supporter of choice, and I wonder how I can square my vote to convict, these laws, this precedent, and my views on choice.

Does this man deserve to spend life in prison without the possibility of parole because he didn't have the self-awareness, courage, and foresight to ask his girlfriend if she would consider an abortion? I don't know. Why did he have such crippled faculties of mind that he did not so much as ask? I don't know that either.

For the pain he caused and the evil that he did, he will be punished. But I feel pity for him and for the fellow who carried out the assault, for I see them as tragically ignorant fools.


J G-W said...

Thanks for sharing this compelling story... I've never once been called up for jury duty.

A few years back, Göran did jury duty in a murder trial. As I recall, there was a great deal less uncertainty in that case about the verdict. The jurors weren't sequestered, and the case was resolved fairly quickly.

It find it very interesting how juridical concepts of "knowing" and "common sense" concepts of knowing clearly don't fully coincide here. The judge gave you a bit of evidence after the verdict that was obviously considered legally "tainted" enough to keep it from you before the verdict. Yet in all of your minds, it sounds like that bit of information would have been kind of a clincher. (Of course it was -- in itself -- still very circumstantial.)

I'm also intrigued by the philosophical questions related to the fact that the murder victim was a fetus.

I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the notion that someone who deliberately murdered his unborn child wouldn't be charged with anything more serious than aggravated assault.

But if I'm uncomfortable with that proposition, then shouldn't I also be troubled that the only difference between a fetus being a person or a non-person under the law is the intentionality of the mother?

Also troubling... From your description of the motives leading up to the crime, it sounds the legality of abortion was a factor inducing this man to conspire to murder his unborn child...

Knight of Nothing said...

I wrote a very detailed summary of the trial, but I didn't want to post it publicly. I'll send it to your personal email.

It wasn't so much that there was much doubt about the man's involvement, but there was debate about whether the evidence proved first degree murder with premeditation *beyond a reasonable doubt*.

That magic phrase. To someone with an active imagination, almost any story can be plausible. And since I know just enough about logic, science, and epistemology to be dangerous (to myself), I really had to grapple with it.

I've served on two juries now - attempted murder and murder. In my experience, and from what I have heard, evidence withheld from a jury always seems to be damning to the defendant.

In this case, not only did the rules of hearsay prevent us from learning of the threat against the attacker, they also prevented us from having the attacker's full allocution read into the record, in which he outlined the sordid details of the conspiracy.

Your comments regarding the severity of the charges echo my own wrestling with the question. Still more: if abortion is somehow outlawed (which doesn't seem all that far-fetched), the woman seeking an abortion and her doctor could be charged in a similar way as the defendants in this case. It is a gnarly problem.

As to your last point, I can't be certain, but I think it was a factor. I imagine he thought that paying someone $40 to cause a "miscarriage" (we learned the amount of money and language he used after the trial) was not murder.

J G-W said...

I see your point about proving premeditation "beyond a reasonable doubt." After having read your notes, I also see how there could be doubt, followed by wrestling over whether the doubt is "reasonable."

It is awe-inspiring to be placed in such a situation, where you are literally called upon to make decisions over life and death.

It's also fascinating to consider how the legal process is designed to promote equality and justice. Though obviously it cannot guarantee it. The system clearly can be only as good as the people who make it work.

J G-W said...

As far as the philosophical issues around abortion...

The religious values I was raised with, though conservative by mainstream American values, were not uncompromisingly anti-abortion. The few occasions where I heard this issue discussed over the pulpit growing up, I was made to understand that abortion could be justifiable under three circumstances: 1) in the case of rape; 2) in the case of incest and 3) in cases where the life of the mother would be endangered by bringing the pregnancy to term. A mother who faced this situation was encouraged to sort things out with her family, with her doctor, and with her spiritual leaders, and make what decision was right for her.

(I'm not sure if this was ever the "official" position of the Mormon Church, and if it was, I'm not sure if it still is. But that's what I recall...)

The few times I heard my parents discuss this issue, they seemed to agree wholeheartedly that abortion should be both legal and rare; and that morally it was justifiable only in those rare circumstances I just mentioned.

So that's my foundation in approaching this issue, and I've never shifted too far from it. I think my approach has grown slightly more liberal than that, by allowing that abortion is also justified to protect the mental well-being of the mother, not just the physical survival. (I felt that the concept of protecting a woman's mental well-being was implied, for instance, in allowing abortion in cases of rape.)

I've heard the philosophical arguments about the "personhood" of the fetus. I've seen the positives and the negatives of the arguments on both sides.

Your story showed me that at some gut level, I'm not comfortable with the belief that a fetus is not a person deserving of rights and consideration. It really brought home to me that at some gut level, I view abortion as a tragedy that is sometimes necessary out of consideration for the rights and needs of two people who are interdependent -- the fetus and the mother. But morally, it is something to be avoided if at all possible...

Knight of Nothing said...

For me, growing up Catholic, abortion was a sin, end of story. But by the time I was in my late teens, I could see that absolute prohibition against it was not a position I could defend.

As I got older, I came to see it as an issue of personal sovereignty: a woman has the absolute right to govern her own body. But recent years, (and this case) have shown me that, though I do not think a fetus suffers its own death in the same way that an unwanted child suffers, an absolute right to abortion is not easily defensible either.

I rather like your parents' wisdom: abortion should be legal and rare. Though perhaps men should have little to say about it in the realm of public policy.