Wednesday, May 28, 2014

There's hubris, and then there's hubris

The State of Illinois indicted Esteben Martinez for two violent crimes.  Unfortunately for the state, its two witnesses disappeared (or so the State claimed; how hard the State actually looked for them is another question).  After granting the State several continuances over a period of months so it could try to find its witnesses, trial was finally scheduled for May 17, 2010.

In the words of the United States Supreme Court, Esteben's counsel was ready; the State was not.  After giving the State most of the morning to get its witnesses to court, the judge denied yet another continuance and swore in the jury.  The State told the Court that it would not participate in the trial.

Let that sink in for a minute.  What, one supposes, would happen if a criminal defendant told the Court that it was not going to participate in the trial?  That's not a hard question: the trial would take place anyway, the defendant would almost certainly be convicted since the only side to the story the jury heard was the prosecution's, and the conviction would be upheld on appeal.  Trials don't stop because one side or the other decides to take its toys and go home.  Just for good measure, a sufficiently irritated judge might even have held defense counsel in contempt.

And in substance, that is what happened to the State.  After the State refused to make an opening argument or call any witnesses, the defense moved for a directed verdict of not guilty.  In laymen's terms, that means that the State, which has the burden of proof, hasn't even offered enough for the case to go to the jury and so the judge simply enters a finding of "not guilty".  The State granted the defendant's motion, found him not guilty of both counts, and sent him on his way.

And there the story should have ended, but for one minor detail:  Prosecutors sometimes have a bad case of thinking the rules don't apply to them.  They're special.  They're privileged.  And if they want to take their toys and go home in the middle of a trial, well, they're entitled.  And so the State appealed.

Now, readers familiar with the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Bill of Rights will immediately wonder how the State even has the ability to appeal.  In America, once the defendant has been found not guilty, that's the end of it, right?  The State can't retry someone who has been acquitted, right?  Yeppers, that's what I thought too.

So the State came up with a fairly clever argument:  Since the State hadn't put on the case, the defendant was never really in any danger of being convicted, and so there is no double jeopardy.  The first trial didn't count because it wasn't a real trial.

You can read the U.S. Supreme Court's smackdown of that argument here:

But here's the kicker:  The reason this case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in the first place, is that the Illinois Supreme Court bought the argument.  The highest court in the State of Illinois actually fell for that argument, hook, line and sinker.  Which brings us to the point of this post.

Lawyers will do what they can get away with.  The prosecutors made that dog of an argument because they thought there was a shot that the appellate courts might go along with it, and in a way, one really can't fault them for trying.  And, so far as the Illinois courts were concerned, they were right.  The Illinois courts were prepared to let the prosecution get away with pooping all over the trial court by refusing to participate in the proceedings and then demanding a do-over, something no criminal defense attorney would dare try.

Almost daily, one reads dreary story after dreary story in the press about innocent people wrongfully convicted because the police or prosecution lied, hid evidence, fabricated evidence, whatever.  Seldom are there consequences, except for the poor sap who sat in jail for ten years waiting to be exonerated.  Which is how the "we're entitled" mentality takes root in the first place.

I do blame the courts for letting them get away with it.  Lawyers may do what they can get away with, but it is the job of a judge to set outer limits on what they can get away with.  The Illinois courts failed miserably in that respect.  Thankfully the U.S. Supreme Court stepped up to the plate.

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