Making Decisions with Limited Information

Recently, I spent a week and a half serving on a jury for a murder trial. I was excited to be selected to serve because I’ve wanted to learn more about how our justice system actually functions and I’m all about doing my civic duty.

Over the course of the trial, we heard from witnesses, saw evidence, and even heard from the man who was the defense attorney’s focus – a man who was already imprisoned after accepting a plea deal in exchange for his testimony. We (the jury) felt like there were a lot of holes in the story, but were determined to do our duty to the letter of the law laid out for us by the judge.

The biggest key for us was that the other man’s testimony was the only evidence that directly put the Defendant at the time and place of the murder. In order to use testimony from an accomplice, there must be independent evidence (even slight evidence) that supports their testimony and implicates the Defendant in the crime.

We were given independent evidence that connected the Defendant to the crime after it was committed, but not before or at the time of the crime. We were being asked to judge whether this individual either pulled the trigger or directly aided and abetted in the murder. Basically, if we couldn’t put him at the time and location of the crime or knowingly assisting the accomplice before the crime, we had to issue a Not Guilty verdict.

None of us felt good about it. We all felt he was involved in the crime, but the prosecution failed to prove he was party to it beyond a reasonable doubt. So we did the only thing we could do within the law – we acquitted the Defendant.

I felt gross inside issuing that verdict and handing it to the bailiff. I about lost it when the verdict was read and the family of the victim started crying loudly. But we knew we didn’t have an alternative. We had to follow the letter of the law.

After the trial was officially over, we were allowed to speak with anyone regarding the case, including the prosecution. While we were getting our proof of service, the lead investigator on the case asked if he could speak with us about our verdict and if we could explain what he and the prosecution were missing that we could not return a Guilty verdict.

At our explanation, he was able to reveal information to us that was deemed inadmissible in the court before we were even selected.

There was a witness who saw the Defendant get in the car with the victim and accomplice. There was a witness who heard the Defendant state that he killed the victim. The gun used was owned by the Defendant’s close friend and only 3 people knew where it was kept, including the Defendant and not including the accomplice. There was a witness who saw the murder from a distance, but could confirm the presence of a third person and the movements of those people. The Defendant has a long history of violent crimes involving guns and is the prime suspect in multiple other missing persons cases in the area, which they cannot move on until bodies are found.

To be fair, the witness who saw the murder itself was AWOL and may not have been barred from court. They simply could not locate her to subpoena her. But if we had had her testimony, we could have at least connected the Defendant to the time and place of the crime, thus allowing us to continue deliberating on what level of connection to the crime he had.

All of this testimony could (and would) have filled every single gap we could not understand in the evidence with which we were presented. We all had the gut feeling that he was not an innocent man in this crime, and after hearing about what evidence we were not allowed to hear and consider, we are all confident we acquitted a murderer.

It makes me so mad. I blame the defense counsel for getting this testimony thrown out. I blame the judge for ruling in favor of the defense on this testimony. I blame the witness to the murder for disappearing at such a crucial time. I blame the law for not allowing us to learn all the facts.

And now I’m stuck with this guilt and distrust in the system. And I have no idea what to do with that.

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