Updated: Jul 24
When I think about the term “miscarriage of justice,” I think about the obvious ones. A defendant is convicted of a crime that they didn’t actually commit, a police officer uses excessive force, official incompetence allows someone who has committed a crime to walk away from legal consequences, “on a technicality.” Less obvious but also significant is the role of undue influence and corruption as individuals with money and power who commit crimes frequently overwhelm the criminal justice system or avoid consequences altogether.
All of these had me on my guard as I became a selected juror for a criminal trial last summer in Oneida County, New York. Having seen the 1990s remake of 12 Angry Men, I saw myself as Jack Lemmon’s character, ready to hold the line to prevent one of those miscarriages. As the trial judge gave us the details of the case prior to voir dire, my heart sank. I’ll only provide details that are needed to understand my comments here because I assure you, this was not the kind of case that you look forward to. At minimum, you must know that the Defendant in the case was accused of a sexual offence against a minor.
During the trial, we learned a lot about the involvement of Utica’s Child Advocacy Center during the case. The Child Advocacy Center (CAC), is the evolution of a task force on child sexual abuse created in 1990 as a collaboration between Oneida County’s Department of Family and Community Services, the district attorney, the state police, county sheriff, and the Utica and Rome (a neighboring city) Police departments. The center directly works with victims and their families from the initial complaint through post-trial with various levels of support. In part, it is investigative (the center collects evidence and investigates these types of offenses), in another it is supportive (providing counseling, treatment, and other forms of support for victims and their families, often working with other community organizations).
The testimony from the CAC and the forensic experts during the trial seemed to build a largely circumstantial case with no direct physical evidence connecting the alleged perpetrator to the crime. There was no physical exam of the victim presented at all and this did not sit well with me. Nor did pointed questions by the prosecution that indicated that the COVID-19 pandemic had overwhelmed limited resources at the center and at the state lab as case numbers have exponentially risen. The only convincing evidence came from the victim, who’s devastating testimony was almost enough to overcome the lack of direct physical evidence. By the end of the three-day trial, it was pretty clear that the defendant was LIKELY guilty of the crime.
I’ve brought up the issue of jury nullification elsewhere, but here, the opposite was true. Juries can sometimes be unduly persuaded, from many different sources, not least popular culture, to assume guilt instead of innocence, especially when cases involve aspects of the defendant’s identity, or as in this case, highly emotional testimony from a young victim. Getting the other jurors to address my lingering reasonable doubts emerging from the trial evidence and testimony was a hard sell, as all but a small group of us had clearly made up their minds before we even started deliberating, contrary to the judge’s instructions, and the directives conveyed during the standard jury orientation which includes a video on implicit bias. After an emotional trial, the jurors were ready to throw the book at the defendant, regardless of the absence of direct physical evidence.
Though not nearly as dramatic, and without the consequent shift presented in 12 Angry Men, my empathy with Lemmon’s character returned during those deliberations. After several heated exchanges between myself and the rest of the jury, the re-reading of several pieces of evidence and a conscientious discussion about the weak spots in the state’s case convinced me to change my verdict to guilty (which, for the record I arrived at without reservations after examination), and he was convicted. What I did not expect after the trial, was to be visited by the judge and given specific information that the jurors were not privy to during the trial. Apparently, a clerical error, brought about in part by the chaos of running the under-staffed CAC during a pandemic, led to the judge striking the physical exam of the victim, which apparently showed clear and direct evidence linking the defendant to the crime. The collective sigh of relief upon hearing that was palpable in the room. But I was angry. Without the error, the victim may very well have been spared having to testify.
By the end of the trial, I was smoking cigarettes again.
But this post is not about how I’m dealing with my grief. The post is about the nature of collective societal grief, and as a contributor to Points, how this collective grief relates to our complex relationship with drugs. In the Netflix documentary How to Fix a Drug Scandal, the investigations into conditions in the state lab in Massachusetts provided clear evidence that the criminal justice system is swamped with evidence taken from drug cases and how the underfunding of these critical nodes of the system led to catastrophic levels of negligence and corruption in that state. Thinking about that documentary while listening to the judge in my trial angered me because it was yet another example (indirect as it is) of systemic failures in the criminal justice system, and crippling underfunding of institutions designed to address pressing issues in our communities, all brought about in part by our needless obsession with drug enforcement.
As elsewhere, the biggest victims are our children.
A more evidence-based, harm reduction approach to the very real drug problem in the United States would potentially free up funds and resources to fully staff important institutions like the Utica Center for Child Advocacy all over the country. Children remain some of the most vulnerable citizens in society, and in cases where we can’t (as opposed to won’t) prevent that harm, we can actively re-arrange our budgetary priorities and end our senseless “War on Drugs”, or we will continue to sacrifice children in these indirect, hidden, but deeply consequential ways.