PART VI : VERDICT
When we first started writing this Series — Crime and Its Fascinations — Massachusetts Murder Cases — all attention was on a Big Three : James “Whitey” Bulger; Dzhokhar Tsarnaev; and Aaron Hernandez (who has yet to be formally indicted). Much has happened since. First, along came the Zimmerman verdict — in Florida, but of major impact here in Massaachusetts too. And now we have to add the murder of Amy Lord, right here in Boston, to the list of local crime. So be it.
There will be plenty for Here and Sphere to say about all three of our major cases — still under way — and surely a whole lot to say, and learn, about the Any Lord murder, an event that reminds us all too mournfully of several similar local killings ; that of Molly Bish, for example, or that of Alexandra Zapp, back in 2002, in a women’s bathroom at a rest stop on Route 24; or of Christa Worthington a few years ago on Cape Cod. One wants, needs to ask “why ?” We at Here and Sphere ask ‘why” as well.
Still, our Crime and its Fascinations series has focused on trials: the preparation for trial, the trial itself, and now the verdict. The murders are very different, but the process is the same — more or less. It must be. It is that sameness upon which society bases its taming the barbarity of murder.
So then : what Is a verdict ?
We think of a verdict as the jury’s finding. It need not be so. In some criminal trials the defendant chooses to be tried by a judge. In such case, the judge makes the finding. He or she applies the law and decides upon the evidence of fact.
There’s one other trial situation in which the judge, not a jury, makes the decision : directed verdict. After the prosecution rests its case, the defense may move the court to direct a verdict of acquittal. If the judge finds that the prosecution’;s evidence, taken in its most favorable light, cannot reasonably support a verdict of guilty, he or she will “direct a verdict” — because there is nothing that needs a jury to consider — and the trial ends.
The defense can also moves for a directed verdict after it finishes ITS case. In the recent Zimmerman case, some observers felt the prosecution’s work so iffy that directed verdict should have granted. It wasn’t; but sometimes a motion for verdict-directed is granted. Very embarrassing for a prosecutor…
These exceptions aside, almost all murder trials are heard by a jury, and such is the common notion, So let’s ask again : what is a verdict ?
A verdict is the jury’s assessment of whether the facts as evidenced at trial support the charge. Do the facts determine the charge beyond a reasonable doubt, or do they not ? Most jurors are not lawyers, and they are asked not to think as such but as ordinarily diligent citizens applying common sense and maybe some street smarts as well. The applicable law of the charge is read to them by the judge, in his or her instructions (and these, as we know, can influence the jury correctly or not, as the case may be), and the judge must take great care to instruct his or her jury in a way that does not prejudice the jury’s thinking. Juries give the judge’s instructions great respect — how can they not ? — and that respect almost inevitably sets the jury’s deliberations on a course.
However, make no mistake : most jurors do form their own opinion of the evidence — credibility of witnesses, conclusiveness or not of the forensic evidence, etc. — and go into the deliberation remarkably well prepared to argue for their opinion of it all. In most major cases, much deliberation ensues, because almost all jurors take their duty very seriously and really do defend the house of their opinion vigorously. We tend to think that in a case such as the Zimmerman, in which the jury began its discussions split 3 to 3, that one side or another simply “caves.” Almost certainly that does not happen at all. Jurors do not easily surrender their opinion of a case. Argument becomes intensely detailed, back and forth, and unanimity — which our criminal law requires of a jury — gets reached only when those changing their opinion really do decide that it merits changing. Juries understand that in a murder trial they have the fate of the defendant in their hands — and the concerns of the victim’s family. They care deeply about both. Nobody should ever conclude that a jury makes its finding lightly even when it is unanimous to begin with, much less when it starts its deliberation split.
The argument and the opinions at hand, the jury then — hopefully — reaches a unanimous conclusion. It makes what we call a “finding.” It finds that the facts as presented at trial either support the charge beyond a reasonable doubt or not. So, what is meant by “beyond a reasonable doubt” ? It’s a term in law — not fact — and a key part of any trial judge’s instructions is to set forth the law’s definition of “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Our definition is as simple as we can make it. In order for there to be reasonable doubt about the evidence, it must support an alternative view of the facts — an alternative that is not merely speculation but has identifiable basis in the evidence itself — to the one put forth by the prosecution. One can suspect, or have a feeling, that the evidence presented may lead to a different conclusion, but suspicion or feeling, though species of doubt, are not reasonable doubt. Reasonable doubt must have a reason.
Whether or not the evidence meets the beyond a reasonable doubt standard is the ONLY finding that a jury is asked to make. It is not asked to question the applicable law, or to follow a hunch, or to import a charge different from the charge(s) made by the prosecution. And the jury that makes this finding must be composed of persons who have not, prior to trial, formed an opinion as to the defendant’s guilt or not. (This was not always so at all. In our law’s early centuries, juries were called from those who had personal knowledge of the matter and were asked to give their narrative of what they knew of it. The idea being that only those most knowledgeable about the circumstances could best get at the truth or falsity of the charge.) We require this more difficult standard because our society holds criminal charges to be so serious that only the most rigorous removal of bias of any kind can render a trial and verdict that gets it right. Almost none of us wants a person falsely accused to have to endure trial, much less be found guilty.
Thus a jury verdict is a finding in which the strictest proof test in all of our law is applied to facts presented. Free as possible of hunch, or inclination, speculation or mistake, a jury verdict almost always disappoints, even outrages, m any who stand outside the trial and do not bear any responsibility to the law or the facts, persons who make their own conclusions as to what happened or did not happen and who think that said conclusion should command the law. These people’s feelings are understandable, because murder is, and must be, an emotional thing, a horrifying thing calling for punishment. But understandable is not the same as responsible. The jury is responsible.
All that stands between the public’s emotions and potential injustice are the jury and its verdict. They are the safeguard of our civilization’s civility.
—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere
NOTE : this story was updated at 1.30 PM on 07.27.13