The prosecutor with a perfectly clear case may see the defendant walk out of court a free man, simply because he has neglected to acquaint himself with the various points of law which may arise in the course of the trial, and the lawyer for an accused may find his client convicted upon a charge to which he has a perfectly good legal defence, for the same reason. Looking at it from the point of view of the prisoner's counsel, it is obvious that it is quite as efficacious to free your client on a point of law, without having the case go to the jury at all, as to secure an acquittal at their hands.
At the conclusion of the evidence introduced in behalf of the State there is always a motion made to dismiss the case on the ground of alleged insufficiency in the proof. This has usually been made the subject of the most exhaustive study by the lawyers for the defence, and requires equal preparation on the part of the prosecutor.
The writer recalls trying a bankrupt, charged with fraud, where the lawyer for the defendant had written a brief of some three hundred pages upon the points of law which he proposed to argue to the court upon his motion to acquit. But, unfortunately, his client pleaded guilty and the volume was never brought into play. But a mastery of the law, a thorough knowledge and control of the evidence, a careful preparation for the opening and closing addresses, and an intimate acquaintance with the panel from which the jury is to be drawn are by no means the only elements in the preparation for a great legal battle.
One thing still remains, quite as important as the rest—the selection of the best time and the best court for the trial.
A clever criminal lawyer, be he prosecutor or lawyer for the defendant, knows that all the preparation in the world is of no account provided his case is to come before a stupid or biased judge, or a prejudiced or obstinate jury. Therefore, each side, in a legal battle of importance, studies, as well as it can, the character, connections, and cast of mind of the different judges who may be called upon to hear the case, and, like a jockey at the flag, tries to hurry or delay, as the case may be, until the judicial auspices appear most favorable.
A lawyer who has a weak defence seeks to bring the case before a weak judge, or, if public clamor is loud against his client, makes use of every technical artifice to secure delay, by claiming that there are flaws in the indictment, or by moving for commissions to take testimony in distant points of the country. The opportunities for legal procrastination are so numerous that in a complicated case the defence may often delay matters for over a year. This may be an important factor in the final result.
Yet even this is not enough, for, ultimately, it is the judge's charge to the jury which is going to guide their deliberations and, in large measure, determine their verdict. The lawyers for the defence, therefore, prepare long statements of what they either believe or pretend to believe to be the law. These statements embrace all the legal propositions, good or bad, favorable to their side of the case.
If they can induce the judge to follow these so much the better for their client, for even if they are not law it makes no difference, since the State has no appeal from an acquittal in a criminal case, no matter how much the judge has erred. In the same way, but not in quite the same fashion, the district attorney prepares "requests to charge," but his desire for favorable instructions should be, and generally is, curbed by the consideration that if the judge makes any mistake in the law and the defendant is convicted he can appeal and upset the case.
Of course, some prosecutors are so anxious to convict that they will wheedle or deceive a judge into giving charges which are not only most inimical to the prisoner, but so utterly unsound that a reversal is sure to follow; but when one of these professional bloodhounds is baying upon the trail all he thinks of is a conviction—that is all he wants, all the public will remember; to him will be the glory; and when the case is finally reversed he will probably be out of office.
These "requests" cover pages, and touch upon every phase of law applicable or inapplicable to the case. Frequently they number as many as fifty, sometimes many more. It is "up to" the judge to decide "off the bat" which are right and which are wrong. If he guesses that the right one is wrong or the wrong one right the defendant gets a new trial.
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For the past twenty-five years we have heard the cry upon all sides that the jury system is a failure, and to this general indictment is frequently added the specification that the trials in our higher courts of criminal justice are the scenes of grotesque buffoonery and merriment, where cynical juries recklessly disregard their oaths and where morbid crowds flock to satisfy the cravings of their imaginations for details of blood and sexuality.
It is unnecessary to question the honesty of those who thus picture the administration of criminal justice in America. Indeed, thus it probably appears to them. But before such an arraignment of present conditions in a highly civilized and progressive nation is accepted as final, it is well to examine into its inherent probabilities and test it by what we know of the actual facts.
In the first place, it should be remembered that the jury was instituted and designed to protect the English freeman from tyranny upon the part of the crown. Judges were, and sometimes still are, the creatures of a ruler or unduly subject to his influence. And that ruler neither was, nor is, always the head of the nation; but just as in the days of the Normans he might have been a powerful earl whose influence could make or unmake a judge, so to-day he may be none the less a ruler if he exists in the person of a political boss who has created the judge before whom his political enemy is to be tried.
The writer has seen more than one judge openly striving to influence a jury to convict or to acquit a prisoner at the dictation of such a boss, who, not content to issue his commands from behind the arras, came to the courtroom and ascended the bench to see that they were obeyed. Usually the jury indignantly resented such interference and administered a well-merited rebuke by acting directly contrary to the clearly indicated wishes of the judge.
But while admitting its theoretic value as a bulwark of liberty, the modern assailant of the jury brushes the consideration aside by asserting that the system has "broken down" and "degenerated into a farce. Let us now see how much of a farce it is. If four times out of five a judge rendered decisions that met with general approval, he would probably be accounted a highly satisfactory judge. Now, out of every one hundred indicted prisoners brought to the bar for trial, probably fifteen ought to be acquitted if prosecuted impartially and in accordance with the strict rules of evidence.
In the year the juries of New York County convicted in sixty-six per cent of the cases before them.
If we are to test fairly the efficiency of the system, we must deduct from the thirty-four acquittals remaining the fifteen acquittals which were justifiable. By so doing we shall find that in the year the New York County juries did the correct thing in about eighty-one cases out of every hundred. This is a high percentage of efficiency. After a rather long experience as a prosecutor, in which he conducted many hundreds of criminal cases, the writer believes that the ordinary New York City jury finds a correct general verdict four times out of five.
As to talesmen in other localities he has no knowledge or reliable information. It seems hardly possible, however, that juries in other parts of the United States could be more heterogeneous or less intelligent than those before which he formed his conclusions. Of course, jury judgments are sometimes flagrantly wrong. But there are many verdicts popularly regarded as examples of lawlessness which, if examined calmly and solely from the point of view of the evidence, would be found to be the reasonable acts of honest and intelligent juries.
For example, the acquittal of Thaw upon the ground of insanity is usually spoken of as an illustration of sentimentality on the part of jurymen, and of their willingness to be swayed by their emotions where a woman is involved. But few clearer cases of insanity have been established in a court of justice.
The district attorney's own experts had pronounced the defendant a hopeless paranoiac; the prosecutor had, at a previous trial, openly declared the same to be his own opinion; and the evidence was convincing. At the time it was rendered, the verdict was accepted as a foregone conclusion. To-day the case is commonly cited as proof of the gullibility of juries and of the impossibility of convicting a rich man of a crime. There will always be some persons who think that every defendant should be convicted and feel aggrieved if he is turned out by the jury.
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Yet they entirely forget, in their displeasure at the acquittal of a man whom they instinctively "know" to be guilty, that the jury probably had exactly the same impression, but were obliged under their oaths to acquit because of an insufficiency of evidence. An excellent illustration of such a case is that of Nan Patterson. She is commonly supposed to have attended, upon the night of her acquittal, a banquet at which one of her lawyers toasted her as "the guilty girl who beat the case.
Yet the writer, who was present throughout the trial, felt at the conclusion of the case that there was a fairly reasonable doubt of her guilt. Even so, the jury disagreed, although the case is usually referred to as an acquittal and a monument to the sentimentality of juries. The acquittal of Roland B. Molineux is also recalled as a case where a man, previously proved guilty, managed to escape. The writer, who was then an assistant district attorney, made a careful study of the evidence at the time, and feels confident that the great majority of the legal profession would agree with him in the opinion that the Court of Appeals had no choice but to reverse the defendant's first conviction on account of the most prejudicial error committed at the trial, and that the jury who acquitted him upon the second occasion had equally no choice when the case was presented with a proper regard to the rules of evidence and procedure.
Indeed, on the second trial the evidence pointed almost as convincingly toward another person as toward the defendant. I have mentioned the Patterson, Thaw, and Molineux trials because they are cases commonly referred to in support of the general contention that the jury system is a failure. But I am inclined to believe that any single judge, bench of judges, or board of commissioners would have reached the same result as the juries did in these instances.
It is quite true that juries, for rather obvious reasons, are more apt to acquit in murder cases than in others. In the first place, save where the defendant obviously belongs to the vicious criminal class, a jury finds it somewhat difficult to believe, unless overwhelming motive be shown, that he could have deliberately taken another's life.
Thus, with sound reason, they give great weight to the plea of self-defence which the accused urges upon them.
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He is generally the only witness. His story has to be disproved by circumstantial evidence, if indeed there be any. Frequently it stands alone as the only account of the homicide. Thus murder cases are almost always weaker than others, since the chief witness has been removed by death; while at the same time the nature of the punishment leads the jury unconsciously to require a higher degree of proof than in cases where the consequences are less abhorrent.
All this is quite natural and inevitable. Moreover, homicide cases as a rule are better defended than others, a fact which undoubtedly affects the result. These considerations apply to all trials for homicide, notorious or otherwise, the results of which in New York County for ten years are set forth in the following table:. A popular impression exists at the present time that a man convicted of murder has but to appeal his case on some technical ground in order to secure a reversal, and thus escape the consequences of his crime.
How wide of the mark such a belief may be, at least so far as one locality is concerned, is shown by the fact that in New York State, from to , there were decisions by the Court of Appeals on appeals from convictions of murder in the first degree, out of which there were only twenty-nine reversals. Seven of these defendants were again immediately tried and convicted, and a second time appealed, upon which occasion only two were successful, while five had their convictions promptly affirmed.
Thus, so far as the ultimate triumph of justice is concerned, out of cases in that period the appellants finally succeeded in twenty-two only. Since there have been twenty-seven decisions rendered in first-degree murder cases by the Court of Appeals, with only three reversals. The more important convictions throughout the State are affirmed with great regularity.
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As to the conduct of such cases, the writer's own experience is that a murder trial is the most solemn proceeding known to the law. He has prosecuted at least fifty men for murder, and convicted more than he cares to remember. Such trials are invariably dignified and deliberate so far as the conduct of the legal side of the case is concerned. No judge, however unqualified for the bench; no prosecutor, however light-minded; no lawyer however callous, fails to feel the serious nature of the transaction or to be affected strongly by the fact that he is dealing with life, and death.
A prosecutor who openly laughed or sneered at a prisoner charged with murder would severely injure his cause. The jury, naturally, are overwhelmed with the gravity of the occasion and the responsibility resting upon them. In the Patterson, Thaw, and Molineux cases the evidence, unfortunately, dealt with unpleasant subjects and at times was revolting, but there was a quiet propriety in the way in which the witnesses were examined that rendered it as inoffensive as it could possibly be.
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Outside the court-room the vulgar crowd may have spat and sworn; and inside no doubt there were degenerate men and women who eagerly strained their ears to catch every item of depravity. But the throngs that filled the courtroom were quiet and well ordered, and the justified interested outnumbered the morbid.
The writer deprecates the impulse which leads judges, from a feeling that justice should be publicly administered, to throw wide the doors of every courtroom, irrespective of the subject-matter of the trial. We need have no fear of Star Chamber proceedings in America, and no harm would be done by excluding from the courtroom all persons who have no business there.
It is, of course, not unnatural that in the course of a trial occupying weeks or months the tension should occasionally be relieved by a gleam of humor. After one has been busy trying a case for a couple of weeks one goes to court and sets to work in much the same frame of mind in which one would attack any other business.
But the fact that a small boy sometimes sees something funny at a funeral, or a bevy of giggling shop-girls may be sitting in the gallery at a fashionable wedding, argues little in respect to the solemnity or beauty of the service itself. What are the celebrated cases—the trials that attract the attention and interest of the public? In the first place, they are the very cases which contain those elements most likely to arouse the sympathy and prejudices of a jury—where a girl has taken the life of her supposed seducer, or a husband has avenged his wife's alleged dishonor.
Such cases arouse the public imagination for the very reason that every man realizes that there are two sides to every genuine tragedy of this character—the legal and the natural. Thus, aside from any other consideration, they are the obvious instances where justice is most likely to go astray.
In the next place, the defence is usually in the hands of counsel of adroitness and ability; for even if the prisoner has no money to pay his lawyer, the latter is willing to take the case for the advertising he will get out of it. Third, a trial which lasts for a long time naturally results in creating in the jury's mind an exaggerated idea of the prisoner's rights, namely, the presumption of innocence and the benefit of the reasonable doubt.