Monday, September 18, 2017

Imparting Confidence in the Justice System After the Stockley Aquittal

Your humble servant has forsworn criticizing trial verdicts, having become keenly aware in his life meanderings that there can be a meaningful distinction between media reports about a case and what is presented as evidence in courts. Thus you will not see in these pages any critique of the judge’s verdict in the case of the State of Missouri vs. Jason Stockley, the former St. Louis Police Officer who shot and killed Anthony Lamar Smith after a car chase in 2011 [1], and whose acquittal resulted in protests. [2]

Now some will think my position despicable, and others will deem it admirable. Which one will likely depend upon the political persuasion of the one making the assessment. But I try to operate under what I trust is not a delusion, that politics don’t belong anywhere near a courtroom, and that verdicts should be based on evidence alone. And the simple fact is that anyone who did not see all of the evidence competently presented in court is not qualified to pass judgment on the verdict.

Media reports don’t count. In fact, judges will be heard to tell jurors not to read or listen to media reports regarding the case they will decide on. Thus, anyone who decides a case based on media reports is doing so based on information that wouldn’t be allowed in front of a jury, and you can rest assured that it is not because the information is thought reliable enough to be considered. If you have some doubts about that you are invited to consider the fact that we are often treated to surprise acquittals that seem to contradict everything we have heard about a case, from O.J. Simpson to Casey Anthony. Really. We ought to wonder about that.

Still, a panegyric to the American legal system is out of place here. Widespread distrust of that system has developed, and that will hamper its effectiveness, regardless of its virtues. When a country’s legal system is no longer trusted to deliver justice, private and extrajudicial remedies are not far behind.

So how do we restore confidence in the legal system?

First of all we have to recognize that there is a problem, and that, for some people, “restore” might not be the right word. I refer, of course, to black people, whose history involves slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow Laws; who make up 40% if the American incarcerated population, notwithstanding the fact that they are only 13% if the population [3]; who now find themselves in the midst of a white supremacist renaissance; and who, due to the foregoing, just might be uneasy about their prospects of being treated fairly by American officialdom. And we do seem to have repeating incidents of white officers shooting black people, and suffering no legal sanction, do we not? No one who remembers Bull Connor’s fire hoses and attack dogs will be dismissive of the potential ramifications here. None of this means that Jason Stockley should have been found guilty, but it does provide insight into why many people might perceive that the fix was in from the get go.

Secondly, we need to ruthlessly search for biases that exist in the system, and strive to eliminate them. No more needs to be said on this point, since it virtually goes without saying.

Thirdly, we need to enhance the safeguards that have been part of our common law heritage for centuries. Jason Stockley was indicted by a grand jury [4], and that is how all felony prosecutions should begin. When this function is handled by prosecutors, it can give the appearance of rigging. But we should not have grand juries that operate as rubber stamps for prosecutors. Indeed, grand juries should operate independently of prosecutors’ offices, and should be provided with legal advisors that are not attached to prosecutors. And everyone should be allowed to bring cases before grand juries: private citizens as well as police officers. This will avoid the kind of controversy that emerged when a grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. [5] When charging decisions are made by private citizens, temporarily called into service for that purpose, with safeguards in place to ensure that they are not dominated by agents of the government, greater public confidence in the charging process should follow.

Jason Stockley was acquitted at a bench trial. That means that there was no jury, and the facts were tried by the judge. In felonies, that should never happen. Trials in felonies should always be by jury. That’s how our common law system was designed. It is the only way to ensure factual determinations by disinterested people, as opposed to government insiders.  

Now the trial judge in this case might well be the most scrupulous and honest jurist who ever donned a robe. He may be possessed of a wisdom barely conceivable by ordinary mortals. But he has acquitted a white officer in the shooting of a black man in a case where the facts as reported by the media make such a verdict questionable. That, as they say, doesn’t look right. A jury verdict would have been less susceptible to conspiratorial insinuations.

Finally, since it would be undesirable to go too far in restricting media reports on ongoing court cases, it seems we’re going to have to put up with yellow journalism in this connection. But there is a remedy for disinformation, and that is education. Means will have to be found to constantly remind the public that the facts of court cases cannot be properly assessed by anyone who hasn’t seen the competent evidence presented in a trial; that, as faulty and fallible as human judgment is, a person who has seen the evidence unfold in a trial will be far less subject to such frailty than someone who is getting all of his information from media reports. This is information that doesn’t take long to articulate, is uncomplicated, and can be imparted in elementary school.

We are time and again confronted with people taking to the streets in response to verdicts. Every time that happens it manifests a lack of confidence in our justice system. Making the justice system work as it was designed, combined with the educational effort mentioned, should go some distance in alleviating that problem.