The Importance of Losing Gracefully
Yesterday was such a busy day on the jury front that it took me a while to comment.
Courtesy of twelve of his neighbors, Michael Jackson is now officially not guilty of the charges against him. Congratulations are due to Mr. Jackson and his attorney Thomas Mesereau, and to the jury, which managed to reach a unanimous verdict in a difficult case (something many pundits doubted they could do). Several facts make this case far different than similar celebrity cases emerging out of that polluted dystopia of the West, Los Angeles:
1. Nobody has lambasted the jury. I have read (almost) no suggestions from anyone that this case represented an inappropriate exercise of jury nullification. Interviews with the jurors indicate that the jurors considered all the evidence, and came to the conclusion that the complaining witness and his family were simply not credible. Of course, there will be some sour grapes - as always - but the jury, by nearly all accounts, has acted responsibly and diligently in considering all the evidence.
2. Unlike the reprehensible behavior of Los Angeles District Attorneys Gil Garcetti and Steve Cooley who publicly criticized the O.J. Simpson and Robert Blake juries, respectively, Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon has accepted his loss gracefully and has not blamed the jury for his weak case. (Ironically, after his unethical public tantrum, Garcetti now presides over the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission. Go figger.) Whether or not one thinks the case ever should have gone to trial, one has to respect Sneddon for his refusal to sink to the depths of his neighbors to the South. It is a difficult thing for any lawyer in the media spotlight to lose a hard-fought case, and the temptation to scapegoat the jury can at times be overwhelming to any lawyer. Sneddon has acted admirably in refusing to succumb.
3. A gag order, a refusal to allow cameras in the courtroom, and a little dignity on the part of the judge and attorneys, kept the circus outside from coming into the courtroom and determining the course of proceedings. One of the jurors noted that by the time deliberations started, they had become so used to the media that they didn’t even notice it. While the case will remain, due to Jackson’s wealth, an aberration, at least it wasn’t a total fluke. A well-prepared, well-funded defense is the exception in American felony courts. But then again, so is a jury trial.
Statistics show that, while Federal criminal filings have more than doubled over the last forty years, the number of criminal jury trials has decreased by thirty percent - a two/thirds reduction in the percentage of cases going to a jury. Most defendants in Jackson’s position would today be forced to take a plea bargain, guilty or not, because the risk of decades in prison if they lost at trial would have been too great. Appearances can be damning, (polls show that roughly half of Americans think Jackson was guilty.)
Jackson was lucky: he could afford to mount a vigorous defense before a jury. The real injustice in this case is that there are so few Mesereaus, and so many defendants who need them.