Saturday, July 09, 2005

Why a "Probably Guilty" Michael Jackson Was Set Free

Lesson in Jackson case: American Jury System Still in Tact

By Brian Tannebaum

Was there not a single shred of evidence that Michael Jackson had improper, possibly illegal relationships with children? Of course there was, in the form of testimony from many witnesses, including children, evidence seized from his home, and Jackson's own words in a British documentary. These witnesses testified to either personally witnessing Jackson with children, or having spoken to Jackson about his relationships with children.

There was only one problem, the jurors, a group of 12 diverse people chosen by both the prosecution and the defense, didn't believe there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt. No race card here, no bloody glove, just a slew of bad evidence that did not permit these jurors to find that the prosecution had met their high burden of proving the case beyond a reasonable doubt.

There are two lessons here. One, when jurors in a criminal case are deciding whether someone should be convicted of a crime, possibly losing their liberty, they want witnesses who are not liars. The mother of the accuser in the Jackson had a sorted past of lying under oath, and of attempting to extort money from celebrities. Two, the unconscionable rule of evidence that allows prosecutors to bring in "similar-acts" evidence is not to be abused.

Many may not be aware that prosecutors in our country are afforded the right to bring in evidence of other crimes or acts in order to prove that the defendant is guilty. For example, if a defendant is charged with stealing a car, prosecutors can seek admission of evidence that the defendant stole other cars in the past. Although this rule of evidence tries to mask what it is really meant to accomplish by stating it is not to be used to show that the defendant is a "bad person," rather that he had the motive, plan, or opportunity to commit the crime, the result is the same. Jurors are allowed to consider the defendant's past in determining whether he committed the crime in the present trial. Thus, the defendant is left to argue that he may have committed those crimes in the past, but not in this case.

It takes a courageous jury to discard this unfair and unjust advantage prosecutors have in criminal cases. We should all express outrage that our government is permitted to argue "he did it before," in criminal cases where someone's liberty is at stake. Prosecutors will argue that this rule of evidence is a powerful tool in securing convictions. That may be true, but it doesn't go a long way to providing the required fair trial to the defendant.

In the Michael Jackson case, it appears the jury did just that: they told our government to bring in credible witnesses, and not fill the trial with evidence that Jackson committed similar acts in the past. They were there to decide whether he committed the crime with which he was charged.

In the Jackson case, they simply decided that the government's evidence went astray of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the alleged crimes were committed. That's what the American Jury System is about.