Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Poisoning the panel

The other day Scott Greenfield brought us the story of Erie (NY) County District Attorney Frank Sedita III whose biggest problem isn't wrongful convictions - it's "wrongful acquittals."

One thing Mr. Sedita failed to do was explain exactly how someone is "wrongfully acquitted." Has he never heard of the presumption of innocence? Has he never heard that the government must prove its case beyond all reasonable doubt? Does he not know what these terms mean?

I've never met Mr. Sedita, but I'm willing to bet that he's no dummy. I'm willing to bet he knows exactly what those terms of art mean. As buffoonish as the term "wrongful acquittals" may sound, that was just the smoke, or the sound or the scantily-clad girl that draws your attention away from the magician's hand.

Mr. Sedita is doing his best to poison the jury pool in Erie County without your even knowing it. While everyone's focused on his ridiculous statement, no one is paying attention to his real purpose in making it.
"I agree that the system is flawed, but in a manner that benefits the accused. I can accept that. Our system presumes a man innocent until he is proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Ours is the greatest criminal justice system ever devised and I am proud to play a role in it. What I cannot accept is deliberate deception heaped upon an unsuspecting public. In my view, these so-called legislative reforms, offered under the pretense of preventing an injustice, are not intended to protect the innocent from wrongful conviction but are instead designed to shield the guilty from any conviction." -- Erie County DA, Frank Sedita III
Now, rather than focusing on whether or not the government has proven its case beyond all reasonable doubt, that Erie County jury panel is going to be wondering about just what the defendant did. Instead of holding the government to its burden of proof, that jury panel is going to be looking at the defendant and waiting for him to give them a reason to believe him.

Pretty sure he did it - but you got a nagging doubt in the back of your mind? Not a problem, vote guilty so we don't have another one of those "wrongful acquittals."

I could go on forever about how there's no such thing as a "wrongful acquittal." But y'all know that. What Mr. Sedita did was no different that what a prosecutor does when he asks a jury panel who just found a defendant not guilty whether it would have made any difference had they known about his prior criminal history. Or whether their verdict would have been different had they known about a certain piece of evidence the judge kept out.

The effect is the same either way. The only difference is that Mr. Sedita's remarks went out to the entire public and not just the twelve men and women in the jury box.

While Mr. Sedita might not like the fact that the government has such a high burden to overcome, the Founding Fathers made it so on purpose. Their greatest fear was the ability of the state to take away an individual's freedom. The founders believed that the power of the government came from the people; nowadays the government believes it's the other way around.

Mr. Sedita knows what he did was wrong. But he also knows that no one will ever do anything about it.

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