High price of justice
As a legal matter, circumstantial evidence is just as meaningful as direct evidence — but it’s not as convincing to a jury.
The circumstantial nature of the evidence in the Lester Ralph Jones murder trial hinted at the potential for a hung jury even before the five-week trial began in July: There were no witnesses to the disappearance or death of Paige Birgfeld, no confession and no murder weapon.
The prosecution was forced to stitch means, motive and opportunity into a convincing tapestry of Jones’ guilt. It succeeded to a degree: Jurors agreed that the evidence pointed to Jones and no one else as the perpetrator. Nobody on the jury, in fact, thought Jones was innocent of wrongdoing in Birgfeld’s death. But for three jurors, reasonable doubt — based on what they cited as lack of evidence — kept them from voting to convict.
Like it or not, this is the U.S. criminal justice system at work. It’s weighted significantly in favor of defendants’ rights, including a heavy burden of proof. Hung juries are the price we all pay for protections from an overzealous government. Accordingly, we thank the jurors in the Jones trial for fulfilling their civic duty, carefully considering the facts and deliberating even after it was clear a unanimous decision was beyond their reach.
Birgfeld’s father, Frank Birgfeld, waited nearly five years before investigators finally found the remains of his daughter. He waited nearly two years for the man accused of killing her to come to trial. Now he’s waiting again.
Rather than expressing outrage over the deadlock, however, he accepted it as part of the process.
“I’m not unpleased with it (the outcome),” he said following Friday’s announcement of a hung jury. “I’d rather have (the verdict be) guilty. But there’s an opportunity to re-do the whole thing. ... We’ll see what happens.”
Birgfeld said he thought both sides did their job well. That’s not unusual in cases that end in a hung jury. In this case, taxpayers paid for both the prosecution and defense. Jones was represented by a team of public defenders. Again, like it or not, a strong public defender’s office is insurance against a miscarriage of justice — where innocent people can be railroaded because of inadequate representation.
We should be thankful we have a strong district attorney’s office, undeterred by the prospects of a difficult case. Prosecutors made a compelling case during the Jones trial. Circumstantial cases are tough to begin with, but made tougher by how criminal trials are portrayed on television.
The court has 90 days to set a new trial for Jones. A new trial could begin this winter if lawyers on both sides don’t reach agreement on a plea deal first. It’s a long shot, but still within the realm of possibility.
Everyone involved in the case deserves closure. Let’s hope it arrives in the next phase of the case.