The hardest lesson I have had to learn as a trial lawyer is that the verdict in any given trial is entirely out of your hands. My job as a prosecutor is to research, prepare, and present. To fight for the admission of evidence. To direct witness testimony and rehabilitate them when cross-examination gets sticky. Ultimately though it is not up to me whether or not a defendant is convicted. That task is given entirely to the jury selected to hear the case.
#20 was the first case I ever took to trial where the defendant was facing life in prison. It involved two recently graduated college students from Georgia who flew into California, each with $10,000.00 to invest in an ongoing marijuana operation in Oroville. They were picked up at the airport by the defendant and another male (a co-defendant who pled guilty prior to trial). The four went to Walmart in Oroville to buy food and then get into a different vehicle and drive to a remote area in Palermo. At that point the defendant (who was a passenger) told the driver to pull over. Defendant then pulled out a gun. One victim heard the “click-clack” of the slide and both jumped out of the back of the car. One of the victims ran into a field. The other got about 15 feet away from the car and was shot in the butt, which fractured his femur. The defendant asked where the money was and when he confirmed it was still in the vehicle in the victims’ bookbags, he and the driver left the area in the vehicle.
At the time of this incident, defendant and his driver were both suspected of multiple armed robberies in Georgia and the defendant had actually been released on bail in Georgia at the time of this offense for attempted murder.
Our victims were given immunity in relation to the marijuana business in exchange for their testimony, which of course was fully explained to the jury at trial. They did not testify well.
Defendant elected to testify on his own behalf at trial and claimed the shooting was accidental after he pulled the gun due to a need to defend himself. Defendant claimed they had all driven to Palermo to participate in a “show and tell,” i.e. you show us the money, we show you the weed. At that point one of the victims pulled a gun on defendant so defendant pulled his gun out. The driver reversed the vehicle which knocked everyone outside of the car down and it was during that point in time that gun accidentally went off, shooting one of the victims.
Not guilty was the verdict.
In speaking with the jury after the verdict it was clear that the jury as a whole did not believe anyone who testified in the trial. The victims and the defendant had minimal credibility and the jury didn’t believe they got the full story from either side. The verdict was based on insufficiently meeting the burden of proof. Remember, a defendant is presumed innocent until the evidence provided to the jury overwhelms that burden beyond a reasonable doubt.
Defendant was released from custody. That evening a suspect matching his physical description robbed a female at gunpoint while she was getting money out of an ATM machine in Chico. The defendant’s M.O. in Georgia.
This trial did not sit well with me. Or rather, I had trouble sitting well with the result of the trial. It made me question whether my abilities as a trial lawyer were lacking. It had me asking whether I should continue to serve my community as a prosecutor or if I should step aside and let more qualified individuals do the job. And when I say this, I mean I thought about these questions for months. The result weighed heavy on my heart and I felt an enormous burden that I had failed the public because a dangerous individual was out of custody and could hurt someone else in the very near future.
It wasn’t until I spent some time with one of my closest mentors hashing these issues out that I was able to make sense of this. I had done my best-my job was the presentation of the evidence. The jury’s job was to decide if it was enough. In this case, it had not been enough. That was outside of my control. That is how the system is supposed to work. It’s not perfect, but it provides the checks and balances necessary to make sure we get it right most of the time.
This forever changed my perspective of jury trials. From day one, I was told that my job as a prosecutor was not win, it was to seek justice. To do the right thing. To handle those things within my control, holding myself to the highest standard. In this trial I followed those rules, and the dragon won.