While the “Not guilty” verdict in the Steinle murder trial wasn’t what most people expected and/or desired, it doesn’t mean that the verdict was unjust, unfair, and/or “disgraceful.” Having practiced in state and federal criminal courts for the past 25 years, serving as a prosecutor, criminal defense attorney, and adjunct law professor, I can say, without reservation, that the only thing unjust, unfair, and/or “disgraceful” is to insult and demean the jurors who worked hard to arrive at what they believed was a fair verdict. I’m not suggesting that you have to like the outcome. You’re free to think and/or say whatever you want, per the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. However, before you criticize the jurors’ decision concerning their verdict on the murder charge, give some thought to the following points below that may assist you:
1. Like many, I was surprised by the verdict. Based exclusively on what I was reading and hearing in media reports, I was expecting a guilty verdict on the murder charge.
2. Like almost everyone, I wasn’t in that courtroom to hear any of the evidence first hand. Therefore, it would be inaccurate and unfair for me (and almost all members of the public) to say that I knew all the evidence that was presented and, more importantly, how it was being received by those in the courtroom.
3. As in most high profile cases, the public is relying on merely what a reporter believes the evidence is. That’s not a very reliable system. There’s no guarantee that the reporter has any first hand knowledge of the facts about which she/he is reporting. They often rely upon what someone else tells them the evidence is. What results is a poor and inaccurate reporting of what actually took place in the courtroom. (Like a bad game of “telephone.”) Relying on that information as gospel is a foolish decision. I know this first hand because I’ve tried a number of high-profile criminal cases. There have been times when I’m in trial and I’ll read or see coverage of what occurred in court on a particular day and laugh out loud at how inaccurate the reporting is. I’ve actually wondered, “Did the reporter even step foot in the courtroom?” Conversely, some reporters are excellent and often do get it right. It’s hit or miss.
4. There was one group of randomly selected people from our community that did get a chance to see and hear all of the evidence. After critically evaluating all the evidence presented in the Steinle case, they got to listen to the law read to them by the judge and then determine what, if any, crimes were proven by prosecutors. We call those people “jurors.”
5. Absent evidence that proves jurors were involved in anything nefarious like being bribed or tampered with, then it’s reasonable to believe that these jurors had the best of intentions when they accepted their oath and agreed to render a fair and impartial verdict in this case. It’s also reasonable to believe that they maintained their integrity all the way through the entire trial process.
6. While the “court of public opinion” allows any fact, true or not, relevant or irrelevant, to be considered, the court of law is different. The rules of evidence don’t permit judges to allow the jurors to hear “everything.” For example, in this case the judge could not let into evidence the fact that the defendant had seven prior felony convictions and also, that he had illegally re-entered the US on five previous occasions. In legal terms, that evidence would be “more prejudicial then probative.” As a result, it should, and was deemed, legally irrelevant and thus, inadmissible.
7. Had jurors heard of the defendant’s prior convictions and illegal reentry’s and then subsequently convicted the defendant of anything, the case would have most certainly been reversed on appeal. Having to try this case again would have further devastated this family and cost tax payers an inordinate amount of additional money.
8. A “not guilty” verdict doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is innocent. No one will ever convince me that O.J. Simpson’s “not guilty” verdict means that he did not slay two innocent people. In this case, it would be inaccurate to suggest that jurors found this defendant “innocent” of murder. Their “not guilty” verdict likely means one of two things- that they either believed he was innocent or that the prosecutors simply failed to prove the case beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt.
9. Since I haven’t spoken directly to those jurors, I don’t know exactly why they voted the way they did. I do know that this case was never a slam dunk and that proving intent was always going to be a challenge for prosecutors. For what it’s worth, I objectively presented what I knew of the facts to my 11 year old and he predicted a “not guilty” verdict before knowing of the jurors’ final decision. He didn’t think there was enough to prove that this was an intentional act.
10. Based on the evidence presented and/or the lack thereof, there were many possible reasons these jurors could have found reasonable doubt. In this case, the defense allegedly presented compelling defense experts to support the defense’s theory that the shooting wasn’t intentional. Allegedly, the gun that was used, a Sig Sauer, is prone to accidentally discharge. Additionally, while prosecutors don’t have to prove motive in a murder case, they didn’t have one here. That hurt them, even though they didn’t legally need one. Furthermore, the fact that the bullet allegedly ricocheted from approximately 70 feet away before striking the victim also may have hindered the prosecutors’ efforts to prove this was an intentional act. Absent any additional evidence like admissions from the defendant, compelling eye witnesses, video evidence, and/or scientific evidence, prosecutors had a challenging case from the start.
11. This defendant deserved a fair trial even with his criminal history and with the fact that he was illegally in our country. Fortunately, the Bill of Rights treats everyone equally under the law. The burden of proof doesn’t get lowered because we don’t like the defendant and/or because he has a lengthy criminal history. The presumption of innocence still applies to illegal immigrants. If we made changes based upon various or random circumstances than our justice system would be compromised. The only way to ensure that our rights and the rights of our loved ones are protected is to provide equal justice to all.
12. This was a horrible tragedy. My heart goes out to the Steinle family. I can’t imagine how painful it must be to lose a loved one, especially under these circumstances. The jurors’ verdict does not mean in any way that the jurors felt differently. I’m fairly confident they were all moved by the testimony of the deceased’s father. I actually think they should be further commended for following the judge’s instructions not to consider sympathy when making their decision. It’s only easy to do if you’re a robot. In spite of the intense emotion that filled the courtroom every day and in spite of the public pressure to convict, these jurors seemed to follow the law. It’s a very difficult thing to do under these circumstances. This jury was made up of random people from the community. Picture your mom, your dad, your brother, your neighbor, your mailman, your hairdresser, your doctor, etc. That’s who was on this jury. If you picture those you care about on this jury, perhaps you would be less critical and judgmental, no matter how much the verdict infuriates you.
13. Before you attack me for what I’ve written, let me make it clear, I’m not on anyone’s “side”. I didn’t write this article as a democrat, republican or independent. I do my best to publicly stay out of politics. I felt compelled to write this as an ambassador of the criminal justice system. It’s not a perfect system, however, it’s the best one in the world. It will continue to make mistakes at times. Overall, the system works. “Working” means that innocent people as well as guilty defendants will walk free.
14. If I could change the system in any way, I’d change the verdict forms. Instead of “guilty” and “not guilty,” I’d change it to “proven” and “not proven.” That’s really what the criminal system is about. It’s not about finding the truth as some people think. It’s exclusively about what can be proven. Sometimes the truth is difficult to prove.(just ask any prosecutor)
15. Respecting the verdict and liking the verdict are two different things. Feel free to yell and scream and punch a hole through a wall if you’d like. Say what you want. Just consider what I’ve written and hopefully, it has assisted you in some way.