Sunday, September 04, 2011

FAQ: Why Bother With a Trial, Anyway?

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[NOTE: As this column was going to press, the jury came back with a verdict of guilty to second-degree murder. Robert Stewart was sentenced to a minimum of 142 years in prison--effectively a life sentence without parole. More thoughts on this next week.]

As of this writing, the trial of Robert Stewart for killing eight people and wounding Michael Cotten and police officer Justin Garner at the Pinelake Nursing Center in Carthage is about to go into closing arguments.
By the time you read this, the jury will likely be in deliberations. Or they may already have reached a verdict.
I don't comment often about local trials. The reason for this is simple: They're not my cases. As I pointed out a few weeks ago in reference to the Casey Anthony trial, unless you're really involved in a trial, on a day-to-day basis, seeing what the jury sees and being excluded from the stuff they don't, it's hard to comment on them with any degree of real authority (although there are plenty of people who pretend to that authority).
The Stewart trial, however, is inescapable, and if you're in the legal business around here, so are the questions from a concerned, occasionally annoyed, and once in a while downright cranky public. While I'm not going to comment upon specifics, there are some frequently asked questions that I can answer, just from a general knowledge of how things work.
The question I see and hear most often is this: "Why do we even have to have a trial? Why are we paying lawyers to defend him? Everyone knows he did it!" The answer is simple: because the U.S. Constitution says so.
The Sixth Amendment reads: "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed ... to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence."
That's in all, repeat all, criminal prosecutions. There's no exception for "really bad crimes" or for defendants who "everyone knows" are guilty. All means all.
Which leads us to the next question: "Why doesn't Stewart just agree to take life without parole?" Yes, I have actually seen this question raised. Friends, I haven't discussed the matter with Mr. Stewart's attorneys, much less with Mr. Stewart, but I would imagine they would take a plea to life without parole in a hot second - if it were offered.
But, like the tango, it takes two to plead, and I haven't heard even a shadow of a whisper of a suggestion that such a plea was even being considered.
Well, you may ask next, why not? Why won't the state just offer life and get this over with?
There are a number of factors that go into the decision by the state whether or not to seek the death penalty and whether or not to consider backing off it. The strength of the particular case is one. The potential public backlash from pleading out a high-profile, emotionally charged case is another. A huge factor is always the wishes of the families of the victims.
But why does it have to take so dadgum long? Believe me, as one of the many folks who have had to navigate around enhanced courthouse security and the courtroom shortage created by this trial, I've asked the same question.
But remember: This is a death penalty case. It's going to be examined and re-examined and re-re-examined by courts, probably all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Neither side's going to cut corners here to save time.
There's also a concept that comes into play called "harmless error." This is a phrase that crops up in some appeals court decisions in which the court concedes that yeah, maybe the trial judge made a mistake in letting in a piece of evidence or some error of law, but they're going to let the conviction stand because "the other evidence of guilt was so overwhelming that this error was harmless."
As for the defense - again, it's a death case. So neither side, prosecution or defense, is going to leave any horses in the barn.
I'm not going to get into a discussion pro or con about the death penalty here, because, let's face it, no one's opinion ever changes on that. But I'll say this, because it's the answer to a lot of questions about this and other trials: If the state's going to take someone's life for breaking the law, then they need to do it according to law.
Otherwise, we're just a well-dressed lynch mob.