There are commonly different opinions about the outcome of court and jury trials. Regardless of the outcome in any particular case, we should not lose sight of the blessing that is our legal system.
As an attorney and retired judge, I am reasonably familiar with our court system and the thoughtful procedural and evidentiary rules that have been developed over centuries to provide the best chance for fair trials, even though we don’t always reach correct results in our trial process. Too frequently we encounter outcomes that appear to be incorrect and cases in which a team of volunteer lawyers rescues prisoners who have been wrongfully convicted. It is commonly known that our trial system is imperfect, but it is also commonly acknowledged to be the best system known.
There are many reasons why we do not always reach correct results. The subjective nature of witness credibility is one reason, but there are many others. Incorrect lab results are sometimes a reason. Reliance on expert opinions can be another. Disparate skill of opposing counsel is a factor. Availability of witnesses can be a factor. Some witnesses who may be entirely truthful do not testify well, and that can be a factor. Some witnesses lie. Some witnesses misperceive what they think they saw. Unequal financial resources to prepare and present a case can be a factor. Undetected bias of a juror can be a factor. Media attention can be a factor. And so on.
Death cases are some of the most emotional cases. Medical malpractice death cases are not uncommon. Medical personnel do make mistakes. We usually don’t send them to jail, and we may or may not find them responsible in a civil court. Product liability cases sometimes involve death, and again we don’t usually criminally charge the responsible company personnel. They may or may not be found civilly liable. Workplace negligence sometimes causes the death of a co-worker, and we normally don’t charge the negligent worker with a crime.
But in police-shooting cases, it is common to consider criminal sanctions. The police situation may involve issues of both intentional and negligent conduct. My sense is that no police officer, doctor, company employee or construction worker goes to work with the thought that he or she is going to sabotage their career and complicate their life by killing someone that day. When it happens to a police officer, it generally is due to a spontaneous set of circumstances, requiring an instantaneous judgment call. The choice to shoot involves intent to cause death, but whether the choice was reasonable is more akin to the process of negligence.
The principal difference between the police-shooting situation and the other examples of death cases cited above lies in the immediacy of expectation of a tragic result. The doctor who prescribes an incorrect medicine does not expect a bad result, but if the doctor had known the true facts, he or she would have chosen differently. The product manufacturer who chooses an inappropriate compound for a heart device may know that death is possible if it is in error, but chooses with the expectation that it is acting correctly. If the manufacturer had known the true facts, it would have chosen differently. The construction worker who thinks that a particular safety rule does not apply in a particular situation, thus precipitating the fall of a co-worker, could have foreseen that a death would result, but chose incorrectly. If the employee had understood the true facts, he would have chosen differently.
Malpractice deaths, product-related deaths and workplace-accident deaths are too common, but they seldom invoke criminal consequences. There are rare cases in which extreme negligence results in criminal charges, but those cases usually involve situations in which a company is on notice of a dangerous situation and attempts to conceal the danger while continuing the dangerous practice.
A wrongful death is tragic regardless of the cause, and the loss is just as grievous regardless of any remedy the courts can provide. It is certainly understandable that the decedent’s survivors do not walk away resigned to society’s imperfections. The survivors want to vindicate a wrong and want to show in some way that the decedent’s life had value and purpose. We often use the court system in an attempt to vindicate the value of a lost life, but knowing that the loss can never really be cured and also knowing that the legal system may or may not reach the result that we would prefer.
The legal system provides a process to hopefully ensure 12 unbiased jurors. We know that neither the representatives of the decedent nor of the defendant would be appropriate unbiased jurors in that particular case. Instead, we go into the community and find others without connection to the parties. Then we have a judge advise the jurors of the dos and don’ts that will help assure a fair trial. Then we shield the jurors from input about the case other than what is provided in the trial process. Then the judge and the attorneys discuss what law should be part of the instructions guiding the jury deliberations.
Then we put the jurors together to discuss what they have seen and heard during the trial. Twelve heads are better than one. The jurors are not there to vindicate any particular point of view. They are not partisans. They are there to perform a difficult civic duty. When they deliberate, they can share observations of credibility and analyze facts as a group from evidence admitted during the trial. They are uniquely situated in a way that partisans are not. That is the system we live by. It is sensible and constantly under improvement through rule changes and ethical regulations.
Usually, jurors reach the right result, which gives us confidence that the system mostly works well. Sometimes it does not. A doctor’s negligence may cause the loss of life of a child, but the doctor may convince the jury that he was not at fault. A police officer may erroneously believe himself or herself to be at risk of death but convince the jury that the belief was real. Our legal system relies on juries of impartial persons to resolve factual disputes. But even if we conclude that a particular result was a wrong result, the system works because it operates by rules and processes that are generally agreed to be thoughtful and fair. As a society of law, the system serves a broader purpose than to guarantee a result in any particular case. We need to keep that broader purpose in mind.
Thomas W. Wexler, of Edina, is a retired Hennepin County district judge.