Saturday, September 29, 2007

Spector Jury Hangs

I know I'm late on this one, but it certainly deserves a comment. The Phil Spector jury has hung, which wasn't looking like a huge surprise as the jury's questions became more and more pointed. A few thoughts.

First of all, I certainly can understand why Judge Fidler didn't want a hung jury. This case lasted months, it was very costly, and consumed quite a bit of the Court's resources. That being said, the lengths he began going to to try and get a verdict went a little overboard. The notion of giving the jury a lesser of involuntary manslaughter during deliberations defied imagination - of course, he ended up not doing it, but the amount of press that it got clearly swayed some jurors into realizing that the judge wanted them to reach a verdict of guilty as to something.

From what I understand about the jury instruction the judge gave to the jury, and then withdrew, it appeared as if it was not a correct statement of the law. It may have been a correct statement of the law according to the prosecution's theory of the case vs. the defense's theory of the case. The prosecution's clear theory was that Spector shot Clarkson after putting the gun in her mouth - if it went off accidentally or on purpose it didn't matter, since putting it there was "implied malice," and therefore an act so dangerous to human life that the mere act of doing implies the person is acting with malice (as opposed to the gross negligence or recklessness that is required for involuntary manslaughter). The defense theory was that whoever put the gun into her mouth, Spector didn't pull the trigger, and hence, couldn't be held liable for murder. The problem is, in the abstract, one could be liable under implied malice for murder by putting a gun in someone's mouth even if you don't eventually pull the trigger. Such a scenario was never explored in this case, but giving a jury instruction that he must be not guilty if he didn't pull the trigger is an incorrect statement of the law. How a change in that instruction could've made the difference is beyond me, though. I can't imagine that there were guilty jurors out there who believe that she pulled the trigger.

The retrial is going to be as long and tedious as the first one. It's going to be a slog, and it's going to happen. There is no chance that the prosecution is going to offer Spector anything that he will take - it's too politically unpalatable. District Attorney Steve Cooley will look like a fool in public if he gives Spector anything in the single digits, and Spector, at nearly 70 years old, is not going to plead to double digit time. I just can't see this case settling, especially not with a 10-2 for guilty split. If this was one of my cases, we would settle it for about 12 years or so. That's not going to happen in this case.

Spector will probably get new lawyers. From their perspective, they've just done a great job. They hung the case, they got on TV every day, it is a boon to their career. There's almost no uphill from here, unless they win it next time (not too likely to happen, in light of the split and juror comments in this case). Reality speaking - they're gone.

For the rest of us defense lawyers, I think this is a bad thing. This perpetuates the misconception that prosecutors can't win a fair fight, and that laws need to be changed to deal with it. I'm sure that this will fuel another round of pushing for non-unanimous jurors (the "Phil Spector law?"), and also to keep cases off TV. But, more than anything, it makes future jurors think that every defense lawyer has some trick up his sleave to try and get his obviously guilty client off, and that they should not be trusted. The net result of that means that, sure as day turns into night, there will be more innocent people getting convicted by more overly skeptical jurys. And that's a bad thing, especially for us public defenders who represent the most downtrodden in society. But, I survived OJ, I'll survive this.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Larry Craig and Police Officer Opinion Testimony

One of the areas that has held public fascination in the Larry Craig situation is the vagueness of the charges and allegations against him. Put simply - what did he actually do wrong - tapping a foot and reaching with his hand? He clearly did not break any established and obvious laws by those actions (not unless laws have become so over broad and burdensome that they've even caught me, Public Defender Dude, by surprise). So what he did had to be interpreted by a police officer as being illegal, because it is not illegal on its face.

This brings up an area that I've so often railed against - police officer opinion testimony (or, as I like to put it, "my opinion is that you're guilty."). I think that this opinion testimony, whether in the context of gangs (giving an opinion that any sundry crime was committed for the benefit of a street gang so as to make minor crimes strikes, or average crimes life sentences), or drugs (giving the opinion that whatever amount of drugs that someone possessed was obviously possessed for purposes of sale), or any other area.

Prosecutors love this stuff. It's like 2 closing arguments in their case. They get a police officer who gets to get up on the stand and essentially say "I've investigated thousands of cases, and in my opinion this person is guilty, because his case falls in with all these other ones in this manner." It is highly prejudicial, and in many cases, highly meaningless. Let's face it, any old person in the world could figure out whether a certain crime benefits a gang without having to hear a police officer point his finger at your client and say "he definitely did it for the gang." How about general testimony about how a gang may benefit, or something to that effect?

And the Larry Craig case is just like that. The police officer sees something, and interprets it one way. Larry Craig interprets it the other way. It is so difficult to get a jury to realize that a police officer sees the world in a certain manner, and everything they see falls into line in that manner. When you go out looking for gay people, suddenly everyone is gay and hitting on you. Even the most subtle actions can be taken as hitting on you.

The only way that Larry Craig could have ever been convicted in this case would have been if the officer had gotten on the stand and said "I've investigated thousands of these cases, and what Larry Craig did was hit on me and attempt to have sex with me." How do you refute that? It's very difficult.

That being said, going against that kind of testimony can be very fun, as well. You get to pose hypotheticals to the police, who have to sometimes take ridiculous positions to continue to assert your client is guilty.

I had one gang case where the gang officer's testimony won the case for me. Through cross examination, I was able to put forward a whole different scenario about how the crime took place, and ask if that would be consistent with guilt or innocence, and the officer had to concede that looking at the case in that manner it made my client not guilty (of the whole crime, not just of the gang allegation).

So, I hate these types of cases, and this testimony, but a good lawyer learns how to turn it in their favor, or at least neutralize it as much as possible.

Good luck Larry (and I mean that - they're nothing wrong with being gay!).