Saturday, July 7, 2007

This jury sure wasn't right, but it sure was final

When Don Jewell was Chief Deputy of the Berrien County (Mich.) Sheriff's Department, he reacted to the stunning acquittal of a bail bondsman accused of trying to bribe an officer by saying, "Juries aren't always right, but they sure are final."

Thus it's with great caution that those within the criminal justice system voice criticism of jury verdicts. There are, however, times when a jury's verdict is so lame that it warrants public comment.

The trial of Robert J. Brown for attempted first degree intentional homicide in Kenosha County is one of those cases.

Brown fired several shots from a pistol at Officer Brian Miller of the Kenosha Police Department as the officer stopped Brown's vehicle for minor traffic infractions. A squad car video recording shows that Brown began firing at the officer even before Brown got out of his still-moving car. One shot hit Miller's patrol car while two others passed by him and hit a building. During his trial Brown had no explanation for why he shot at Officer Miller.

To convict Brown of the original charge of attempted first degree intentional homicide the jury would need to find that Brown attempted to kill Officer Miller. The presiding judge, however, also instructed the jury on a lesser-included offense of first degree recklessly endangering safety. Brown was found guilty of the lesser offense and also for being a felon in possession of a handgun.

Juries in Wisconsin are, in fact, instructed that if they can reconcile the evidence with any reasonable hypothesis consistent with the defendant's innocence, they should do so and find him or her not guilty.

So, to let Brown off the hook for the attempted murder charge, the jury would have had to conclude that he didn't intend to kill Officer Miller. That hardly is a reasonable hypothesis. What were those gunshots, which began while his car was still moving? Clearly they weren't an invitation from the Welcome Wagon.

No doubt Brown's actions were, at a minimum, reckless and indifferent to human life. But this wasn't just a case of a reckless driver speeding down a crowded highway. This is a case of a felon -- who wasn't supposed to have a gun in the first place -- opening fire on a police officer. The natural and probable consequences of firing a gun at another human being are unthinkable. So, too, is the verdict returned by this jury.

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