Guilty of Caring

by Edgar J. Steele

May 11, 2002

My heart was broken last night.  Admittedly, it had been on life support for years, but last night it finally gave up the ghost.  

As much as I rail against the legal system and its inherent unfairness, I still naively sally into court on a regular basis, fully expecting to slay the dragon and extract a measure of justice.  Hope springs eternal.  No fool like an old fool.  Something.

A jury of twelve good people, drawn from the area in and around Roseburg, Oregon, convicted Brian and Ruth Christine of Robbery.  This is a so-called "Measure 11" crime, thus mandatory minimum prison terms apply, with no discretion available to the judge.

We gave them plenty of reasonable doubt to hang their hats on, if they wanted to acquit either Brian or Ruth of any of the charges.  They didn't want to.

Yes, the Christines got hit with Custodial Interference and Unauthorized Use of a Motor Vehicle, too, but we expected those.  It's this piling on that I particularly dislike; prosecutors should be forced to pick their charges and they should not be allowed multiple charges for the same act.  

Taking the state car from the SCF workers at gunpoint and driving it 2.1 miles to where their car was waiting, then leaving it, undamaged, should not be punishable by both robbery and UUMV, particularly when the robbery conviction carries such a heavy penalty.  We lawyers are, of course, prohibited from telling juries about the length of the convictions that can accrue from each charge (can you believe it?).

And there should be a penalty to the State for overcharging in the first place, such as claiming in this case that telling the workers to step out of the car constituted kidnapping.

It was the harshness of this verdict, by virtue of the Measure 11 impact, that stings so badly.  That's why it is of small solace that we beat all the kidnapping charges.  My standard for a win in this case was beating all the Measure 11 charges.

Sentencing has been set for about two weeks from now.

We lawyers like to think we have a substantial impact on the outcome of trials.  Each time I face another jury, the suspicion grows that we may not have anywhere near the level of influence we believe.  

It would be easy to toss off the Christine verdict as just another aberration, due to the manifest unfairness of the judge or some such twaddle.  But, that wouldn't be true.  Let me go on record right now about what wasn't wrong with the Christine trial.

Judge Lasswell did a pretty good job.  By that, I mean that he sat up there and kept out of the way, just letting us try the case.  To me, that is the ultimate measure of a good judge.  I don't need a special advantage, I just want a level playing field.  And he was a true gentleman to everybody involved, a refreshing changeup from the mean-spiritedness that increasingly seems to me to be the order of the day in courtrooms.

And the prosecutor, Douglas County Deputy District Attorney Rick Wesenberg, was whip smart and a tough cookie but never did anything that I considered to be unethical.  Anybody who has any experience whatsoever with prosecutors knows that is high praise, indeed.  I disagreed on moral grounds with his decision to have little Bethany testify against her parents, but it certainly was the correct tactical decision.  His was a tight, journeyman job of trial work.  I goaded him many a time, but to his credit, he never got angry or flustered and just stayed the course.  I see a bright future, indeed, for him - and well beyond the environs of central Oregon.

And the jury?  I hand picked them.  There was not a single ringer among them, not one bad apple, as is so often the case.  And there were many, many people that I had marked with the highest score I give potential jurors.  And they liked me.  At the start of trial, I owned the jury.  Good people, all.  Just folks, but it does make me want to go reread Lord of the Flies, by William Golding.  (No, I am not going to simply hand you the significance of that literary reference.  If you have gotten this far in life without reading this landmark work, it is high time you got a copy and did so!)

I can't blame the Sheriff or his support staff.  Among the best I have ever been privileged to deal with.

And I can't say enough about the people I met in Roseburg during the past two weeks.  Beautiful little place, brimming with beautiful, friendly people.  If it weren't situated in Oregon, I would seriously consider moving my family there.

Lessee now, did I miss anybody?  Oh, yes....the defense lawyer.  Well, court watchers were effusive in their praise.  That included a fair number of lawyers, by the way.  The trial will be broadcast on Court TV in about a month, so you can watch and draw your own conclusions about this one, if you like, because I simply cannot be trusted to render an accurate report on my own performance.  

One thing occurred, which has happened to me only twice before:  after the trial, the judge took me aside and expressed his admiration for the excellence of my presentation - that is very unusual, let me tell you.  And, I felt that our defense was as good as I could have made it.  The best job I could do; though, based on results, clearly it could have been better.

So, where did we go wrong?  

My theme to the jury in this trial was unintended consequences.  A system manned by good people, but which produces results that would never have been desired by anybody involved.  

I think that the theme of unintended consequences may well apply well beyond the Christines' case, however.  In a real sense, I think that is what the whole legal system has become, if not America altogether.  Bad things happening to good people as a result of a system that has just gotten out of hand.

There is a sickness extant in America; nay, the world.  A sickness evidenced by the stench of unfairness wafting forth from courtroom, legislative hall and corporate boardroom, alike.

And, I don't think we fix it.  At the very least, the doctor most assuredly is not in.

Maybe I have become something of an anarchist, because I find myself wishing for something, anything, that will break the system badly enough so that we can build a new one, free of the inherent inflexibility and unfairness that I perceive being meted out to the common man.

But, then, I'm just another man with a broken heart.  Another lost soul adrift in this wasteland of indifference and calculation.  So close to the broken lives and lost dreams that I am incapable of seeing the forest of human endeavor in proper perspective.  Perhaps.

Or, perhaps I'm just a sore loser.  Regardless, I still care.

Consider how Brian and Ruth Christine must feel at this very moment, held in isolation and on suicide watch.  They have lost everything....everything.  Until yesterday, at least they still had each other.  This verdict, however, is a state-mandated divorce, since she will be deported once released from prison and Brian will never be allowed a passport or entry to England (generally, no great loss, but that's where the three oldest Christine girls are, after all).  My disconsolance is nothing, compared to theirs, believe me.

-ed

"I didn't say it would be easy.  I just said it would be the truth."
            - Morpheus

Copyright © Edgar J. Steele, 2002

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