Over the weekend, hip-hot artist Jasiri X posted this image on his twitter feed. It’s taken from the front page of the New York Daily News’ website. Note the screaming headline and the sympathetic caption: “Accused killer Dylann Roof had one chance at a stable family life — and his abusive dad ruined it for…
Over the past couple of days on various social media platforms, I’ve suggested that perhaps, in the immediate aftermath of the George Zimmerman verdict, it might be wise to refrain from posting oh-so-rational comments about burdens of proof and how the criminal justice system “works”. Maybe it would be better to give people a chance to grieve, vent, express anger. The response to which – mostly from white folks and fellow lawyers who just happen to be white – was that we need to accept the jury’s verdict because we have to “respect” the judicial system.
No. Full stop.
Look, I’m not going to analyze what the jury got right and what the jury got wrong in the Zimmerman case. I’m not a criminal lawyer and, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I opted out of watching the trial on television. But the broader point here – that “respecting” the judicial system means never questioning the outcome of a single trial – is utter nonsense. Of course we can criticize individual jury verdicts, just like we can criticize individual Supreme Court decisions. Respecting the judicial system does not mean blind acceptance of every outcome. Respecting the judicial system means we hold it and everyone involved in it – lawyers, judges, and juries – to the highest standards.
Juries, because they are made up of humans, make mistakes. Most of the time, they get it right. But they are not foolproof, and sometimes, when they make mistakes, the consequences are enormous.
To use my home state as an example, in January 2000, then-Gov. George Ryan (a Republican, by the way) imposed a moratorium on the death penalty, because, in the twenty-three years since the death penalty had been reinstated here, thirteen death row convicts had been exonerated as compared to twelve who were actually executed. Two of those thirteen exonerated death row inmates were Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez, who were wrongfully convicted of raping and murdering a ten-year-old girl in Naperville, in suburban DuPage County. Cruz and Hernandez went through a ten-year ordeal involving multiple trials before DNA evidence finally cleared them in 1995 – even though shortly after their first trial in 1985, a sex offender named Brian Dugan confessed that he, alone, committed the crime.
The case was so badly mishandled that in 1986, Ed Cisowski, a lieutenant with the Illinois State Police who had interviewed Dugan, tried to convince DuPage County prosecutors to drop the charges against Cruz and Hernandez. “’I had skepticism when I first spoke to him,’ Cisowski said . . . recalling his initial interviews with Dugan. ‘But then I became more and more convinced that he was the sole perpetrator, and I believe that today.’ He said that in March 1986, ‘We summed up the findings and tried to convince the DuPage County state’s attorney that he (Dugan) was the sole perpetrator.’ He said those findings were ignored by prosecutors and sheriff’s police.”
Worse than simply ignoring Dugan’s confession and the admonishment of the Illinois State Police, though, there were allegations that investigators in DuPage County may actually have fabricated evidence, including a bizarre “vision statement” Cruz allegedly relayed in which he – if you can believe this – dreamed about particular details of the case only the perpetrator could have known. In fact, the case against Cruz and Hernandez was so suspect that the state eventually appointed a special prosecutor – William Kunkle, a former assistant Cook County State’s attorney who had successfully prosecuted John Wayne Gacy – who obtained a forty-seven count indictment against seven DuPage County prosecutors and sheriff’s police officers.
According to the Chicago Tribune: “Thousands of pages of testimony from the DuPage 7 grand jury and court documents paint a picture of a prosecution that was constructed with lies and half-truths, buttressed with distorted evidence and, according to the indictment, stitched together with criminal misconduct. From almost the beginning there were hints that something was terribly wrong. Two DuPage sheriff’s investigators quit their jobs in disgust over their belief that justice was being compromised. Witnesses testified they were intimidated by investigators. Defense attorneys accused prosecutors of concealing evidence. An assistant Illinois attorney general, appalled by the conduct of prosecutors and convinced of Cruz’s innocence, resigned rather than argue to uphold Cruz’s conviction and death sentence.”
The case against five of the “DuPage 7” went to trial in 1999, the trial judge having previously dismissed charges against two of them. Ultimately, the jury acquitted the remaining five. And then this happened: “In a scene that veteran defense lawyers said they had never seen before, all of the jurors returned to the courtroom and began hugging the defendants. Members of both groups had tears in their eyes as backs were slapped and family members moved in as well, exchanging high-fives.”
Seriously. In a case where prosecutors and sheriff’s police sent two innocent men to death row – over the objections of the Illinois State Police – and may have fudged evidence along the way, the jury charged with determining whether those prosecutors and police officers broke the law not only acquitted them, but actively celebrated with them in the courtroom. As if to raise their collective middle fingers at Cruz and Hernandez, at the State Police who knew Cruz and Hernandez were being railroaded, and, really, at the criminal justice system itself.
So, in the case of Cruz and Hernandez, juries made multiple mistakes – aided, of course, by slick prosecutors and potentially ginned-up evidence – that nearly sent two innocent men to their deaths. Then, when another jury was given a chance to correct those mistakes and to hold police and prosecutors accountable for their actions, that jury balked.
Now, in the aftermath of the Zimmerman case, we’re being told that to criticize a jury’s verdict is to disrespect the judicial system. No, sir. To the contrary, what happened with the prosecutions of Cruz and Hernandez demonstrates what happens when we don’t hold the judicial system and all its actors accountable for their mistakes. The stakes are too high not to criticize jury verdicts when criticism is warranted.