Thursday, June 10, 2010

Those Who Judged Hank Skinner

Forgotten among those harmed by wrongful convictions are the jurors who were manipulated and deceived into casting an improper guilty verdict. I am particularly sensitive to those folks, having myself been the target of such manipulation and deceit.

In my case, my skepticism spared a kind, decent, and innocent gentleman from what would have effectively been a life sentence. Over the course of eight days of deliberation, I transformed a jury leaning 11 to 1 guilty, into a jury voting 10 to 2 not guilty. During the retrial, I worked closely with the defense, on a volunteer basis, to prepare them for the response they should expect from the next jury. I had access to all the case documents, and spent hundreds and hundreds of hours pouring over them. There is no doubt in my mind that my initial skepticism was justified. That decent and gentle person went home to his family a free man, assuming you  can ignore a half million dollars in legal bills and a life's work tarnished. I went home to my family a transformed individual.

While I am frustrated with jurors who I perceive to be insufficiently skeptical of the State, I have trouble faulting them. Jurors are all too frequently lied to and manipulated by the prosecution, the defense, and the judge. Crucial evidence is withheld from them. They are frequently sequestered, kept under house arrest in someone else's house. They are frequently not allowed to take notes, or have the transcripts read back to them. They are seldom allowed to ask questions, even though those questions would be filtered by the judge. They may be bombarded by expert testimony beyond their comprehension.

Jurors have no training or preparation for the difficult job society asks them to do. They are paid hardly at all for their service, far below the minimum wage the State demands of every other organization. They are put in a terrible position to weigh evidence, then are expected to do just that. As far as the trial courts are concerned, jurors are the judges of fact. As far as the appellate courts are concerned, jury verdicts are not to be questioned.

I feel for those jurors who later learn that they may have condemned an innocent person. The experience is so traumatizing that most jurors are loath to admit they made a mistake, even when overwhelming evidence makes it obviously so. Jury expert Douglas Keene apparently agrees with me: "Over time, they become more cemented into that original view because they can't even tolerate the view that they might have made a mistake on something so serious."

It is perhaps therefore remarkable that most of Hank Skinner's jurors, those asked to judge the facts of his case, are now willing to question their verdict. Students from the Medill Innocence Project located and interviewed most of them.

I won't paraphrase that article describing their work. It's better that you read it in its entirety. But I will borrow three quotes from the article. The first I have already used. It's the quote from Douglas Keene. The second and third I'll use to close this post.

"It would have been reasonable doubt," said juror Tiffany Daniel, wiping away tears. "Especially if we had all that evidence, and another person's fingerprints was on it, or if someone else's skin was underneath Twila Busby's fingernails. That's reasonable doubt that it could be somebody else."

"What's right is right and what's wrong is wrong," said juror Jerry Williams. "It should have been tested before ... Somebody's life is at stake."

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