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Friday, April 25, 2008

I, the jury.

This morning, New York State Supreme Court Justice Arthur Cooperman acquitted three detectives of all charges in the 50-shot killing of unarmed groom-to-be Sean Bell in the early hours of his wedding day. The verdict was delivered to a packed courtroom, with a huge crowd gathered outside the courthouse. After the verdict, some crowd members wept and some were enraged, shouting “Murderers!” A phalanx of police ringed the courthouse on Queens Boulevard, prepared for any violence, though there were only some minor scuffles. Justice Cooperman ruled that the prosecution had not proven guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Commenting on the prosecution’s witnesses, he said, “At times, the testimony of those witnesses just didn’t make sense.”

Unlike in federal court, where both the prosecution and the defense must agree for a trial to be conducted without a jury, in state court in New York if criminal defendants wish to proceed with a judge trial, they do not need the consent of the prosecution. Nevertheless, it is rare for defense lawyers to elect this option. Where there is a complex legal issue bearing upon guilt or innocence, it may make sense to waive a jury. In other cases, a defense lawyer may hope that a judge will reduce a charge to a lesser offense by rendering a verdict that is not an outright acquittal but allows for a shorter prison sentence. This is sometimes a viable strategy in murder cases where the hope is for a manslaughter verdict.

The one consistent exception to the general rule against waiving a jury is cases in which criminal defendants are police officers. Almost without fail, in state court trials in New York City involving alleged serious police misconduct, the defense elects to waive a jury and proceed before a judge. Perhaps defense lawyers believe that judges are more informed regarding issues that confront police officers, and thus can be fairer than a jury. Maybe the defense strategy is that in such emotional cases, judges are cooler, calmer, and more collected in their deliberations. Clearly, the defense lawyers made the right call in this case. However, in trials where the police are accused of hurting or killing members of a minority community an unmistakable impression is that those very communities cannot be trusted to be fair and impartial and to serve as judges of the facts. Jury waiver will continue to be the chosen and appropriate strategy and distrust one of the unavoidable public reactions in these sorts of cases as long as “I, the Jury” continues to be the law in this state. CR

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