Thursday, May 27, 2010

"We Erect Courthouses For A Reason"

See: Wash. court: Jail trial unfair to murder defendant

James Frank Jaime was convicted of killing a man during a drug deal in 2005. The judge agreed with prosecutors who for security reasons wanted to hold his trial in a courtroom at the jail, rather than in the courthouse across the street.

In an opinion by Justice Debra Stephens, the high court ruled 6-3 Thursday that the setting was prejudicial, akin to letting jurors see the defendant in shackles, and that the judge did not analyze whether the security concerns were justified.

"We erect courthouses for a reason," Stephens wrote. "They are a stage for public discourse, a neutral forum for the resolution of civil and criminal matters. ... The use of a space other than a courthouse for a criminal trial, particularly when that space is a jailhouse, takes a step away from those dignities."

And a few paragraphs later:

That prompted a separate writing from Alexander, who noted that in many counties, the jails have been located on the top floor of the courthouse. Anyone entering the building gets the sense of being in a courthouse, not a jail, he said. That's not the case in the Yakima jail.

"There is a significant difference between a jail in a courthouse and a courtroom in a jailhouse," Alexander wrote.

[Emphasis is mine.]

I realize that many people would look at the defendent in the above mentioned instance and say "Just hang the bastard!" He may well deserve to hang. Had the trial and conviction taken place accross the street, we would likely never have heard of him or even give much of a damn about him and his trial. Setting his trial in the jail house was a mistake.

Jail implies guilt.

Inteligent people, some would argue, can look past the setting of the trial in and prevent themselves from allowing the location of the trial to bias their view of the defendant. This is a bad argument on several counts, two of them notable.

Firstly, intelligence does not prevent someone from being influenced by the settings and surroundings that they find themselves in. We are all human beings, influenced emotionally as well as intellectually by the events and circumstances that we find ourselves in. We are not Vulcans, emotionally detached or dead. Settings will affect how we "feel" about something, no matter how much we "think" about it.

Secondly, juries are comprised of our "peers." That is not "peers" as in people of the same intellectual caliber or social strata, but "peers" as in people picked almost completely at random from the community that they court serves. The odds of them all being "intelligent" enough to be able to ignore the setting that the trial is staged in is . . . well, its ridiculous. Only the delusional or those that have never actually met or dealt with the public could think that a Jury would always or even often be comprised of only "intelligent" jurors.

The stage and the setting that a trial takes place in needs to command the respect of the defendants, the juries and the public at large. It must also be neutral. The defendant deserves to have a fair trial. The public needs the trials to be fair so that it can be certain that the convictions and the acquittals that result are sound and proper, even if they may not be the emotionally desired outcome.

In this case, holding the trial for this defendant in the jail was a mistake.

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