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The US justice system - does it work?
Some facts about the US justice system are often overlooked, such as the fact that more than 90% of criminal cases never go to trial, and trial by jury is the exception rather than the norm. But when they do, does the trial process work?
In the novel, Justice Gone, two steps of a criminal trial are examined. The first is the Grand Jury proceedings. Many of us don't realize the extent of the state's influence in these hearings. The District Attorney decides what evidence can be admitted, selectively issues subpoenas, and basically runs the show, while the defense plays little or no part. Commonly, overzealous prosecutors will make a case for an indictment that might not be warranted, generating criminal trials for those who may very well be innocent of the charges.
On the other hand, if an indictment is sought against law enforcement officers, the shoe may very well be on the other foot. Law enforcement is on the same side of the fence as the DA, and consequently a conflict of interests is difficult to avoid. That is why indictments against police for using excessive force are rare.
The second step of the trial process is trial by jury, which decides whether to convict or not. And this is where the public and the media can play an unwelcome part.
The trial of O.J. Simpson lasted over eight months and was watched by over 100 million television viewers (comparable to the Super Bowl), and was a sign that even in 1995, the people of the United States had yet to bridge the divide over race, as well as raising doubts over the behavior of law enforcement. But most of all, it provided an intimate glimpse into the US justice system, from jury selection to the jury's verdict.
Although we had a celebrity athlete on trial and the finest criminal defense lawyers in the US - the "Dream Team," the real centerpiece was the jury. Although the trial took eleven months of testimony, it took the jury only four hours to acquit.
So, the question is: Was the verdict of 'not guilty' responsible, impartial and correct?
A poll gave the obvious result that most African-Americans felt that Simpson was innocent, while most Caucasians felt the opposite. Was the fact that 80% of the jurors were African-Americans influence the outcome, i.e. did they acquit Simpson solely due to he being the same race as they?
In my view, race didn't matter for this particular case, because the defense succeeded in raising reasonable doubt. Even if the jury believed Simpson murdered those people, according to the principles of American justice, he should not have been convicted.
The strongest piece of evidence the prosecution had was the DNA forensics, but chain of custody became a big issue. In fact, the handling of all the evidence by the police came under scrutiny, and rightly so. Later during the trial, with the jury absent, Mark Furhman, the detective who found the bloody glove and socks, invoked the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination when asked "did you plant or manufacture any evidence in this case?"
Then there was the bloody glove found at the crime scene, which the prosecution challenged Simpson to try on. Simpson could not get his hand in.
In post-trial interviews, a few of the jurors said that they believed Simpson probably did commit the murders, but that the prosecution had failed to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Three jurors together wrote and published a book called Madam Foreman, in which they described how their perception of police errors, not race, led to their verdict.
Even more controversial was the Casey Anthony case. Equal to the Simpson trial in terms of attention grabbing, the trial of Casey Anthony, who was accused of murdering her two-year-old daughter, was quite different. The big difference was that while the country was divided over Simpson's guilt, the public and the media overwhelmingly assumed Anthony was guilty, which in turn fueled the outcry over the not guilty verdict. One charge, that of first degree murder, was problematic, in that forensics experts could not determine the cause of the little girl's death, but in general the questions of how, why where and when were never answered satisfactorily. According to many legal experts, the not guilty verdict for Casey Anthony can be seen as a victory for the U.S. justice system, despite strong public opinion opposing it, mainly because it upheld the concept of reasonable doubt.
In an ABC News interview, juror Jennifer Ford said that she and the other jurors cried and were "sick to our stomachs" after voting to acquit Casey Anthony of charges that she killed her daughter. "I did not say she was innocent," said Ford,. "I just said there was not enough evidence. If you cannot prove what the crime was, you cannot determine what the punishment should be."
So is the flaw in the system reasonable doubt itself. How can legal experts exclaim victory, even if a guilty person is allowed to be released back into society?
It's because the opposite case, convictions of innocent people are not only possible, but probably occur at a rate that would alarm you.
Let us look inside John Grisham's true crime study, An Innocent Man, a revealing and well documented account of three separate trials, and the wrongful conviction of five men (perhaps the title should have been The Innocent Men). In one case, the police and prosecutor used forced "dream" confessions, unreliable witnesses, and flimsy evidence to convict Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz of murder and rape. After suffering through a conviction and eleven years on death row, Williamson and Fritz were exonerated by DNA evidence and released on April 15, 1999. Similar narratives apply to the trials of Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot, and the trial of Greg Wilhoit, namely horror stories of persecution, harassment, fraud, lying snitches, and fabricated evidence. If reasonable doubt had been applied, those men would have never been incarcerated on death row (this was in Oklahoma, where the death penalty still exists). Fortunately, these men were exonerated before they could be put to death.
One could surmise that so much of a trial outcome depends on the jury. That is why I dedicated a whole chapter in Justice Gone on the jury deliberations in the trial of Donald Darfield.
Whether it's a blessing or a curse, for court cases in the US, justice is in the hands of ordinary citizens.
About the Author:
In 1997, while visiting Lao People's Democratic Republic, he witnessed the remnants of a secret war that had been waged for nine years, among which were children wounded from leftover cluster bombs. Driven by what he saw, he worked on The Plain of Jars for the next eight years.
Nick maintains a website with content that spans most aspects of the novel: The Secret War, Laotian culture, Buddhism etc.
His second novel, Journey Towards a Falling Sun, is set in the wild frontier of northern Kenya.
His latest novel, Justice Gone was inspired by the fatal beating of a homeless man by police.
Nick now lives in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
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