#4 The Jury Trial Without a Victim

My fourth jury trial introduced me to the world of domestic violence. To say that as a prosecutor we never really know how a domestic violence case is going to pan out in front of a jury is an absolute understatement. These are the cases where prosecutors have to be prepared for absolutely every possibility. There are a couple of reasons why I believe this happens:

  1. Victims don’t show up to court. In domestic violence cases everyone has a heightened emotional state at the time of the event. When the dust settles and the real life consequences on a family relationship put in the criminal arena begins; often it just becomes too much for a victim to handle.
  2. Victims change their story. Victims of domestic violence are usually under an immense amount of pressure: they have lost the ability to co-parent, they usually lose an income, they don’t want someone they love to go to jail. The reasons for stories to change goes on and on. Often prosecutors don’t know what a victim is going to say on the stand until the testimony starts.
  3. Witnesses are often family members. This includes the children of the parties. Family members are reluctant to be involved.
  4. Victims become overly cooperative. This can also be a red flag. Sometimes and unfortunately law enforcment contact is used to influence family law cases. As a prosecutor we always have to look at the family law case to see what is being said by the parties in their corresponding family law cases to get a better understanding of the bigger picture.

Domestic violence often happens behind closed doors and so every scrap of cooberating evidence supporting the victim’s statement becomes key. We use small bits and pieces of those observations and evidence law enforcement finds to get to the truth between what he-said and what she-said. Always the best practice it to be able to rely on something other than the statements made by either party to prove the crime that occurred.

Trial #4 involved a female defendant and a male victim who had been in a relationship for approximately 22 years. They had recently broken up but the victim continued to live on the same property as the defendant, just in his own mobilehome. On this occassion victim and defendant got into an argument because the defendant beleived the victim was not sympathetic enough to his adult son’s situation and she went to victim’s mobilehome to confront him about it. She was told to leave; however defendant did not. Instead she got upset and grabbed victim by the jacket. The victim then punched her in the face causing a laceration to the defendant’s chin.

This was a misdemeanor level domestic violence battery. Minor, but documented injuries to the victim and a corroberating injury to the defendant. There were some pretty complex legal issues to convey to a jury in regards to self-defense that came up. Namely that the defendant shouldn’t be able to claim self-defense in a situation she created and the fact that the victim had a right to reasonable self-defense in response to her conduct. We relied on defendant’s own admissions of guilt made to law enforcement and photos taken of injuries in our case-in-chief.

Our victim also relocated out of the State prior to the jury trial and that opened the door to allow defendant to take the stand on her behalf to tell the jury about what happened INSIDE her house before defendant confronted the victim at his own. Information our office was not privy to at the time of the arrest. Information we could not discuss the accuracy of with our victim. Information we could not overcome at trial.

This rocky road of a trial taught me so much.

Evaluate self-defense prior to filing and make sure we can prove beyond a resaonable doubt that the defendant’s actions were not in reasonable self-defense. As a prosecutor that is always my burden to carry and it should never be overlooked.

Non-verbal communication can have an affect on the outcome of a trial. We had a non-traditional DV here. One were the female was charged. She took the stand using a cane and used assisted listening devices in the courtroom. Defendant also testified as to medical issues that she was having at the time of this incident and through the trial, lending her as a sympathetic soul to the jury.

A jury will always wonder where your victim is, even if they are told not to speculate.

Our Judge in this case was a long-term retired judge who had been filling a vacancy in our County for so long he was a permanent fixture. He had seen and heard it all. As soon as the jury left the courtroom, he turned to me and defense counsel and said, “Well this isn’t going to take long.” He was right, 10 minutes of deliberation to a not guilty verdict.

#3 The Jury Trial Where I Learn About Constructive Criticism

Remember when I told that DUI’s are where new criminal prosecutors often cut their teeth on jury trials?

Jury trial #3 involved a DUI where the defendant had been pulled over for speeding, he exhibited routine objective signs of intoxication, admitted to having 1 beer with dinner, and had marginal success on the field sobriety tests administered to him. His BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) was .12% approximately 15 minutes after driving.

Pretty basic fact pattern right? Well, the lesson here isn’t in the guilty verdict. In fact, it never really is. The mistrials and not guity verdicts are where I’ve learned the most. However, this particular case was an eye opener for me despite the successful outcome.

Sometimes when you see the same thing over and over again, like in an assignment like DUI’s you forget that while some of the facts are similar, every single case is different. This is because fundamentally the purpose of a jury trial is to provide the defendant with their constitutional right to have the issue of guilt decided by a jury of their peers. It’s unique because it affects them on an individual and personal level.

Victims also have a constitutional right to be present at all court hearings and have their opinions, their suffering, and their loss taken into account at sentencing. It’s the human factor that makes each trial separately important, because while it may be similar in nature to other criminal events, its important and life altering for the victims of the crime and the defendant who stands accused.

The investigating officer in this case loved DUI’s because of the formulaic structure, just like I love jury trials involving DUI because of the relatively straight forward presentation of evidence. The pattern provides guidance, but sometimes that structure can become commonplace.

After the verdict the majority of the jury held back so that they could meet with meet with me and the defense attorney. They wanted to provide specific feedback on this very issue. While it was directed at the officer who investigated the DUI, I felt that it rang true in DUI trials as well. The members of the jury felt that the words used to describe the objective signs and symptoms had simply become routine descriptors in our officer’s investigations and counseled that they would like him to pay attention to his word choice in the future. For example, the officer in this case testified to seeing “slow, thick, and slurred speech” when in reality, the body camera footage showed “slight slurring” of speech. They specifically said that the officer in this case sounded like he was talking about ANY DUI rather than this SPECIFIC DUI.

The officer and I worked together after receiving the feedback to figure out ways to present future DUI’s without sounding generic. We decided that more focus on the word choice for both defendant’s physical manifestations of impairment, as well as a slower breakdown of the field sobriety tests (i.e. why they were used and what specifically the defendant did during them that caused him to pass/fail). Body cameras were relatively new in this area around the time and so we discussed using that tool to review the investigation completed when drafting the final report.

The constructive criticism the jury provided in this case has stuck with me. It is a reminder of the importance of criminal prosecution. We must balance the rights of the accused, the rights of the victim, as well as the safety of the public in every single case. And while the facts may be routine, this duty is far from it; which is why every jury trial is unique and important, no matter what the crime may be.

#2 The Jury Trial Involving The No Drive Defense

Driving under the influence is one of the most common jury trials to cut your teeth on as a new prosecutor. I got my chance my second trial in. The case essentially revolved around the discovery of an abandoned vehicle in the roadway which was had major damage to the driver’s side of the vehicle, it was missing a tire, and had been driven quite a distance on three wheels. The defendant was located approximatley 30 feet away lying down behind a hill. Defendant admitted to drinking (he was a .20% BAC) but not to driving. Gouge marks in the road showed that the vehicle had crossed double yellow lines and hit a guard rail on the opposite side of traffic; the vehicle had been driven until it no longer functioned. Witnesses put the defendant, and his vehicle, at King’s Tavern hours prior to the collision. Oh and defendant was on probation for a DUI at the time of this offense with terms that included no drinking and no driving with any amount of alcohol in the system. Sound’s solid right?

Not so much.

Defendant took the stand and claimed “his friend” was the one driving the vehicle and that “his friend” had taken off after the vehicle was disabled. Names will not be used here, but the very experienced defense attorney I was up against provided a name, and conveniently, a death certificate, showing that the friend had died approximately 2 months after the collision. Additionally, while we had witnesses from the bar telling us defendant had arrived in the vehicle alone and had been drinking, no one actually saw the defendant leave.

It was a “no drive defense” and a good one. We ended up with a hung jury in this case, and not a good split. 11 jurors for not guilty and 1 for guilt. The issue being that we just could not show beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant’s story of a friend driver was not a reasonable explanation of the facts as they were. No one observed the collision. The vehicle was discovered by law enforcement during routine patrol. And while the vehicle was associated with the defendant, no one could tell the jury he was the one driving it away from the bar that night. And let’s not forget, the claimed was dead. Lastly, the height and weight of the friend and our defendant were such that we couldn’t use the positioning of the driver’s side seat to make any kind of factual argument as to who the driver was.

One of the most frustrating things about this particular case for me is that in criminal law we have a reciprocal rule of discovery. Both sides are required to give over evidence they intend to use at trial. Prosecutors have an additional burden to turn over all exculpatory evidence. I’m certain that had the defense attorney provided information about the “friend,” driver in advance this case would have been reevaluated prior to trial to determine whether or not we should proceed. Instead, we did it after the court declared a mistrial. We determined that a second jury trial would not acheive a different result, after recontacting the bar and the patron witnesses just to make sure they didn’t have any additionaly information about the “friend” and his whereabouts that night.

One of the things we do as prosecutors when a case ends in a mistrial or a not guilty is to attempt to reach out to the jurors to find out what evidence they were looking for, to see if there were credibility issues with our witnesses, and to see which elements of a particular crime was difficult for them with our presentation of the evidence. This part of my job has helped me learn what jurors are looking for in cases such as this, where the defendant claims he wasn’t driving and in others. I have modified my presentation in future cases, as well as my charging decisions based on these difficult conversations.

Justice is sometimes served by not proceeding on a case when the outcome isn’t going to change. A significant amount of public resources go into every single jury trial, no matter the charge. We ask the public to take time out of their lives to perform one of the most basic, and important civic duties we have. Prosecutors are always balancing this public interest in every decision they make and jury trial #2 taught me that this consideration never goes away, even if you have already completed a jury trial in the matter.