Juror struggles with truth vs. law

Q&A

February 16, 1993|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer

The victim, the defendant, the witnesses: all drug dealers. It's a common cast these days in a Baltimore murder trial.

By the lot that determines who sits on a jury, Eugenia W. Collier, head of Morgan State University's English and language arts department, was chosen last June to serve for such a trial. She was dutiful, yet leery about her first brush with jury duty.

After three days in court, she found herself the last hold-out on a jury that ultimately would acquit a 22-year-old man accused of chasing another man into a West Baltimore alley and firing a bullet into his back -- and through his heart and left lung.

She would write later to the judge and talk about the confusion a lay person feels when asked to administer the law as it applies to the most serious of all criminal charges. She thinks the jury she served on followed the letter of the law in finding the defendant not guilty because prosecutors failed to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.

She also thinks she and her fellow jurors freed a murderer.

Here, Dr. Collier and University of Baltimore law professor Byron L. Warnken, re-examine some of her views. We invited Mr. Warnken to draw from his experience of serving on a state bar association committee that writes the language judges use to instruct juries in criminal trials.

QUESTION: In your letter to the judge you say you had trouble sleeping the night before the verdict? Why?

Dr. Collier: Well, because of that reasonable doubt. You can't really define what a "reasonable doubt" is, and here I'm called upon to render a judgment.

Although most of me was convinced the man was guilty, part of me was saying, "But you don't really, absolutely, know," and so it was a kind of back-and-forth argument with myself. In fact, I wrote out all the things that would make me feel that he was guilty and then things I doubted.

Mr. Warnken: The legal community's general belief is that when even the most cavalier, callous, anti-system kind of a person gets into jury duty, the solemnity of the experience makes him or her take it much more seriously than they had thought. Was that your experience?

Dr. Collier: That was the case with me. It's really a sacred obligation. You have to think right about these things. The defendant was a young person, and you say to yourself, suppose, just suppose, he really was not guilty.

I was rather overwhelmed by the heaviness of the obligation. I felt that my fellow jurors had the same feeling.

Q.: In your letter you wondered whether the jury would have required such an airtight case from the prosecution if the victim had been a "little old lady returning home from her son's wake instead of a drug dealer plying his hideous trade." What did you mean by that?

Dr. Collier: Nobody loves a drug pusher or dealer. But suppose this had been someone we had more sympathy for? Would we have been more open to believing that this defendant had killed a fine, upright, sympathetic member of the community rather than somebody that you really couldn't mourn, who really wasn't contributing anything except trouble?

Q.: In your letter you seemed to resent the defense lawyer's zealous performance on behalf of his client. No doubt that lawyer would tell you that the defendant had a constitutional right to representation and that he was just doing his job.

Dr. Collier: If I ever get in trouble and I know I really did it, I'm going after that lawyer, because the more I think about it, the more brilliant his performance was.

He even came up with a counter-theory about what might have happened. He figured the victim had been murdered by the two witnesses, and he didn't have any more evidence for that than just what he said. But I think that was enough to sway people.

Q.: It sounds like you're saying he was blowing smoke, but to some degree it worked.

Dr. Collier: It worked. It definitely worked.

Q.: You came away from jury duty less than impressed with "the system," and now you're expressing, perhaps a little bit begrudgingly, some admiration for the job that the defense lawyer did. Isn't that a contradiction?

Dr. Collier: No. I don't feel we got at the truth. And if "the system" is there to bring out the truth, then it should not depend on the agility -- the mental gymnastics -- of one lawyer as opposed to another.

Q.: Professor, how does that impression, as Dr. Collier expressed it, tie in with the image that the public has with lawyers in general?

Mr. Warnken: I think the public has a negative image of lawyers, that much of the public believes that lawyers are too aggressive. But they all demand that their own lawyer be aggressive.

Whether it's trying to get out of a contract or be defended in a murder trial, we all want an aggressive lawyer on our side because we all understand the adversarial nature of the system.

You've got to tread this line between burying the other side and not looking like a bad guy or hatchet man the jurors don't like and don't want to reward with a win.

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