Stories of life on our farm in Northwest Georgia where every day is an adventure in this beautiful spot that God has entrusted to our stewardship.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Long Day

Yesterday was a long, but exciting day.  Jenny took Jean-Marc and me with her to work!  The US Attorney she is interning with was prosecuting a drug case in federal court, and we got to observe the trial.  We missed the prosecution's case which was presented Tuesday, but got to see the defense case presented.  The defendant, Mr. Johnson, insisted on taking the stand, despite his attorney's attempts to persuade him otherwise.  We got to see him on cross-examination, hear objections from both attorneys, hear the summations of both attorneys (including the prosecution's rebuttal of the defense's closing), hear instructions to the jury, see the handling of a question from the jury to the judge during deliberations, and hear the verdict.

I decided that the real stuff is lots more addicting than watching "Law and Order" or "CSI."  It was incredible to realize that this is a real person whose future is about to be decided by 12 complete strangers!  (Note to self:  Make sure you are never in that position!)

The scenario in dispute was, did Mr. Johnson happen to pick up a man named "Q" and give him a ride to what turned out to be a crack house, only to have Q flee the scene when agents arrived, leaving Q's backpack with a loaded gun and 25 g. of crack cocaine behind Mr. Johnson's seat?  Or is Mr. Johnson actually a crack dealer who went with Q to the crack house with a loaded gun to sell his 25 g. of crack to the crack-heads in the house for processing?  A disputed piece of evidence was a signed ID bearing Mr. Johnson's name and SSN which was found inside the backpack.  Defense claimed the paper didn't prove that the bag was Mr. Johnson's (implying that police framed him by taking it from his car and putting it in the bag or that Q was trying to steal it from the car and put it in Q's bag) because there were no fingerprints taken from either the gun or bag to show that either belonged to Mr. Johnson. 

Having missed the prosecution's witnesses, as I listened to the young, but very able defense attorney talk about the police investigation and their failure to collect fingerprints or DNA proving Mr. Johnson's possession of the bag, I was thinking, "If I were on the jury, I could not be sure 'beyond reasonable doubt' that the bag, crack and gun were his, so I could not vote to convict.  It sounds like the police did a shoddy job of collecting evidence because they assumed the guy was guilty."

The whole trial switched directions for me after the defense attorney's summation when the prosecutor took his last few minutes of summation.  He talked about "CSI" and its hour-long shows and told the jury that CSI would never show this case because it would only last 5 minutes.  Mr. Johnson was at a known crack-house with a backpack holding his personal ID, a loaded gun, and a "dealer" amount of crack.  He ran from the police until he was out of breath and had to stop.  With great passion and force, the prosecutor declared, "There's usually a reason someone runs from the police--because they are guilty!  When the police find a backpack with identification, they don't need to run fingerprints or DNA--that is for solving unknowns!  This is a clear-cut case!"

This shift in directions became a sweep when the judge instructed the jury on several points.  First, "beyond a reasonable doubt" does not mean "absolute certainty."  It means that any reasonable person would make that assumption of guilt given that evidence.  Ding!  That really clarified my thinking.  Then he defined "possession" as legally more than ownership; it can simply mean that you are able to and have the right to exercise control over something.  Ding!  Ding!  It didn't even matter whether Mr. Johnson actually owned the backpack or not; he certainly exercised control over it since it was behind his seat in his car, and he had just opened that back door of the car!

The jury deliberated for barely an hour, and returned a guilty verdict on two of three counts: 1) possession with intent to distribute (intent being presumed by the law because of the large amount of crack) and 2) possession of a firearm by a felon.  To the prosecutor's dismay and the defense's elation, they returned a verdict of "not guilty" on the third count, possession of a firearm in the furtherance of a felony.  Jenny said this count is very hard to prove, and obviously the jury felt that since he didn't actually use the gun, he wasn't "furthering" his crime.  I think it's clear that he intended to--with the gun loaded!--and that he actually had it there as his back-up, which I would personally call furtherance!  But I wasn't on the jury, so I guess I'll just have to wait to see if I ever get called.

It was absolutely fascinating for me as a lay person to get an inside glimpse of the legal system at work--so different from the neat scenarios on "Law and Order" and "CSI"!  It was incredibly impressive to watch our judicial system at work: the skill and passion of the attorneys, the serious attentiveness of the jury, the clear explanations of the judge, and the defendant (who apparently has no job and had not one single character witness to speak on his behalf!) profiting from his constitutional assumption of innocence until proven guilty and his right to a speedy trial by a jury of his peers.

My final thought on the whole thing is that, while I LOVED the whole experience and while I have a new appreciation for Jenny's fascinating career choice, the key word I want to remember is OBSERVATION!  As much as I applaud our legal system, I NEVER want to be the one facing 12 strangers who are about to determine my fate!


  1. Wow, neat day--thanks for sharing! I had a much tamer day that ended with pruning azaleas! Nothing as exciting as a court case!

  2. Oh, I forgot to mention the final case we saw, refusing bail for a violent man who wanted to be with his family before being sent away on an assault charge. I forget how many times charges had been dismissed (usually because the complainant doesn't show)--something like a dozen!--and his girlfriend was sitting in front of us, there to support him. I wanted to say, "Run, girl, run!" AND on our way back to our car at the end of the day, I saw Tonya Craft, from the now nationally famous sex abuse trial in Walker County. All in all, an eventful day!

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  4. I loved having you and JM and there and look forward to next Tuesday's trial!


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