Sunday, September 11, 2011

FAQ Two (And Final): How the Jury Might Have Been Thinking

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Last Saturday, a jury found Robert Stewart guilty, not of first-degree, but of second-degree murder for killing eight people at Pinelake Nursing Center in Carthage. I confess, I really didn't see it coming either.

First off, let me say that my heart truly goes out to the families of the dead. It must have been brutally hard to sit through hours of testimony and to relive the pain of that day. But please, I beg you to remember this about the verdict: Degrees of murder are in no way a reflection on the victims.

The life of a second-degree murder victim is worth just as much as that of a first-degree one in the eyes of the law. The degrees of homicide refer to the state of mind of the accused. After a lengthy hearing, ably tried by lawyers on both sides, the jury found that Robert Stewart didn't have that state of mind that could allow him to act with premeditation and deliberation.

Why? How could they do such a thing? Well, unless the jurors decide to talk about it (and there's no indication that they're inclined to do so), we may never know why they decided the way they did. There are a number of possible reasons, but all are pure conjecture.

The simplest explanation is that the jury considered all the evidence as to the prescription drugs Stewart was taking and the potential effects of those drugs on his state of mind and truly had reasonable doubts as to his ability to engage in premeditation and deliberation. The fact that they asked to re-examine evidence about those drugs would seem to bear this theory out.

Another explanation is that it was what we call a "compromise" verdict. Possibly some jurors wanted one verdict, some wanted another, but everyone was just plain worn out and daunted by the prospect of a another few weeks of hearings on whether or not Stewart should get the death penalty (the "guilt or innocence" phase is only the first part of a capital trial; the second, or "penalty" phase can go even longer).

So they came up with a verdict everyone on the jury could live with, one that put Robert Stewart in prison for well over 100 years - effectively life without parole. Again, this is pure conjecture, but it does -happen.

One of the things that shocked a lot of people was that Stewart's lawyers immediately gave notice of appeal. What were they thinking? Why didn't they just take the win and go home? Well, they can still do that. Just because a notice of appeal is given doesn't mean that the appeal itself will be pursued.

I imagine the last thing Messrs. Megerian and Wells would want for their client is another lengthy trial that could result in a different verdict. But you give the notice, because if you don't do it within the time limit, you lose the right to do so. It would be malpractice to just let that right go because you forgot to say the words "defendant gives notice of appeal."

On the subject of those defense lawyers: I don't know the gentlemen personally, but I do know the -system, and I have to laugh when people claim they did this trial for the big money. I know the court-appointed rates, and I know private rates, and trust me, they'd have made a heck of a lot more staying home and defending private clients.

You don't get rich off court-appointed capital trials; in fact, thanks to the time they take away from -everything else, they can turn into The Trial That Ate Your Practice if you're not careful.

So why do it? Well, as I said, I don't know Mr. Stewart's lawyers except to say hey to, so I can't speak for them. But I can say that everyone else I've ever met who does appointed capital defense does it because they believe that the Constitution's guarantee that everyone is entitled to counsel means everybody and that there isn't a constitutional loophole for really bad crimes.

In the Stewart case, two teams of experienced trial lawyers, under the eye of an experienced and even-handed trial judge, worked very hard to put all the evidence at their disposal in front of an impartial jury, which pondered that evidence for hours before -arriving at a verdict that put the defendant in jail for the rest of his natural life.

We may never know the answer to the question of exactly why they went the way they did, but I hope I was able to answer at least some of your other ones.

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