August 10, 2007

Erroll Morris and Jury Trial

On a night in Texas in 1976, a police officer Robert Wood was shot dead whilst on patrol. Wood had approached a car which was failing to show its lights on foot whilst his patrol companion covered him, as soon as he came up to the window of the car, the man in the driver's seat loosed a series of bullets on him, first hitting him in the arm and then in the chest and killing him. The car drove off into the night, as Woods' patrol partner desperately fired shots afterwards and then went to his assistance- Woods himself died from his wounds. Much later after the event, the film maker and documentary maker Erroll Morris made a film about what happened next and in particular about the trial after the event. Many of the details of what happened next will be outlined below- but a more in depth account is available here.

At that trial, a man Randall Adams (pictured above) was convicted of the murder of Wood- and Morris made a disturbing film pointing to several anomalies in the evidence. In order to understand Morris's film its neccessary to pause for a moment and go back to the situation presented to the jury at the trial. The situation on the night that Wood was murdered was that his partner could not see for whatever reason the murderer. All that was known was that the murderer drove a blue vehicle. However after a young 16 year old named David Harris was called in by police about a robbery of a car, Harris's testimony implicated Adams in the murder. Harris stated that Adams had killed the police officer and drove off. Then the police found some eyewitnesses months after the event who said that they could recall seeing a man like Adams in the car- the prosecution provided these witnesses to the court without letting the defence cross examine them.

Step back and recall the situation. Two men were in that car- one of them shot that police officer with a gun. The issue is which one- the jury were faced with the problem that the men disagreed. Adams said that he had been nowhere near the scene of the crime, Harris suggested that he had been there and had pulled the trigger. There were some eye witnesses who corroborated Harris's evidence and for some reason unobvious to the jury the defence was unable to properly cross examine those eyewitnesses, who had seen across a rainy, windswept and dark night the distinct face of Randall Adams about to pull or pulling the trigger. You might well think that to send a man to his death on the basis of some glimpses through the rain (even if those eyewitnesses were unimpeachable which for several reasons contained in the summary linked to above) would be a bit rich but that is the way the system works.

Ultimately as a juror you are governed by your situation. You are in a court- you face a group of people who are arguing about the evidence of a situation. One group of lawyers is arguing that a man- in this case Randall Adams- is guilty another is arguing that he is innocent. Part of that argument is that it is assumed that the prosecution lawyers are presenting a case that ultimately is enough to convict- if you don't beleive their witnesses fine, but they are lawyers they should know the standerd of proof neccessary to convict. That assumption means that in many ways a juror's understanding of the law- which remember as they come from outside the law is not great- is always determined by the atmosphere of the trial, by the fact that the juror naturally relies on the lawyers and then is faced with the issue of who to trust most. In addition he or she relies upon the judges' summing up- if the judge tells him that the evidence of a man looking through a dark and windy, wet window is enough to convict on then the bias in the juror's mind is going to be to convict.

The problem is that as Morris's film reveals the evidence in the Randall Adams case collapses as soon as you look at it. David Harris was a violent teenager and became a violent man, eventually suffering the death penalty for another murder. Indeed later he confessed to this one. The eyewitnesses were unreliable- some had reported that a Mexican or black man had committed the murder before settling on Adams when told by the police it was a white man. Indeed those same witnesses owed a debt to the police because they wanted their daughter to be exonnerated of the crime of perjury. Furthermore all the materials for the crime were owned by Harris and Harris had been coached as a witness by the prosecuting DA.

For a juror the jury assisted in a perversion of the course of justice- they took a decision based on very little data- which needed little spinning to make it come out that Adams was the murderer not Harris. The problem is that in this murder the wrong information was easy to come by because there was so little information- two men in an anonymous blue car shot another man. Many crimes are like that- one or two witnesses might be the only people who saw the crime and if so indistinctly- interests might conflict and the jury has no idea what went on outside the jury room. Allowing judges to be more certain in their direction about what reasonable doubt might help- but one wonders how without a conviction there couldn't have been a reasonable doubt in the Adams case- all it rested on was someone seeing someone else's face as they drove fast past on the other side of a road on a windy, rainswept night- how can you not doubt.

But then how could you find anyone guilty of that crime at all. Amongst the most moving scenes of Morris's film is when the judge, the son of an FBI man, spoke about law enforcement officers and what they often suffer from those that they attempt to prosecute. If there was noone found guilty then what would that say about society's feelings about the man that died- a police officer with a perfect record. David Harris at the end of the film says that Adams was a scapegoat and there is a sense that he is right- someone had to be convicted and that someone was Adams.

What happened to Adams was a shocking miscarriage of justice. Partly the responsibility for that rests with police officers and prosecuting councel who were so committed to finding him guilty. But partly it also lies with the jury who were faced with a situation in which one man said one thing, another another and they adjudicated based on the fact that on a night difficult to see anything in, someone claimed that from the opposite side of the street they had seen Randall Adams commit the murder. The difficulty is that of course there are many crimes that have to be convicted on similarly flimsy evidence- that very few are beyond reasonable doubt- and that ultimately we have to weigh the importance of attaining a result against the innocent. Furthermore we have to recognise the very real psychological weakness of the jury to ascertain the appropriate standerd for what is a reasonable doubt.

This isn't an easy question. Randall Adams was innocent- but if you or I were in that jury room, with that information, would we have found him guilty or not!

Crossposted at Bits of News


Lord Nazh© said...

The blame lies in the defense attorney and the '12 idiots' who decided it.

The main reason I would dread ever being accused of a crime is the fact that it's easy to get 12 idiots to convict.

There's a reason that 'beyond a shadow of a doubt' is told to jurors, there must also be a reason why they fail to use it :(