Any trial lawyer will tell you that juries are unpredictable. As a prosecutor, we know that the only guarantee at a trial is that there are no guarantees. As the State, we are asking twelve people with their own experiences, biases, and personalities to agree that we presented evidence that a defendant is guilty of the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt. Sometimes, I have felt that a jury would convict, only to be told that the defendant was found not guilty. Other times, I was wavering about what a jury might do and pleased to find that the defendant was found guilty on all charges. You never know what will happen and every time I talk to a victim or their family, I remind them of that.
As prosecutors prepare a case for trial, there are many cases that we dismiss. Ethically, we cannot take a case to trial unless we believe 100% that the defendant is guilty of the crime. Many of you will never see how many cases we “screen” or dismiss because we cannot prove the case. This is a very important part of our job. It also means, that when we are trying a case, we very much are invested in it and believe in it. After the trial, we leave it in the hands of a jury to determine whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. Waiting on the verdict is the most stressful part of a trial. When the jurors file out of the jury room with the verdict form in hand, my heart always seems like it’s going to pound out of my chest. But you have to sit there and wait to hear the words “guilty” or “not guilty.” We, the State pray for the word, “guilty.”
But what happens when a jury gets it “wrong?” “Wrong” in the opinion of the State, or me. What happens when a jury finds a defendant not guilty where we felt there was sufficient evidence to prove his or her guilt? The defendant walks free. They leave the courtroom and can go back to their life. There are absolutely no restrictions on a defendant upon a not guilty verdict.
What happens to the victim or their family after a not guilty verdict? In a case of murder, they may still have the option to pursue a civil case against the defendant, but this only involves a claim for money.
They must still face the prospect of having to see the person out in public. In a case or child molestation, once the defendant is acquitted, there is nothing to stop the alleged abuser from coming back around to see the child. As a prosecutor, your worst nightmare is that you were unable to convince a jury to convict someone, and they go on to reoffend.
The law also prohibits a defendant from being tried again for the same crime.
The prohibition on “double jeopardy,” enshrined in our Constitution, ensures that a person would not have to face an endless string of trials for the same crime until they are convicted. This means that the stakes of a trial are very high for both the State and the defendant. Unlike the Defendant, the State has very few grounds to appeal anything that happens during a trial. If there is an error in how the trial is conducted, the defendant gets the benefit of this error, but the State does not. And it certainly should be this way, as the fundamental right to one’s liberty should not be taken away by the State without numerous protections. Our justice system can be imperfect, but it works.
As my offices enter another week of trial, I remind my team that trial work is challenging and fraught with mental and emotional stakes. And that I am proud to fight along side prosecutors who want to protect victims and our community. While we might not always agree with a jury’s decision, we respect it and prepare ourselves for the next challenge. Until next time, stay safe and be kind to one another.
Marie Broder is the Griffin Judicial Circuit District Attorney.