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.


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On the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Daniel Harris’s Sunday letter (“Politicians should lead by consent, not by bullying”) was particularly timely as to the lessons we should have been learned by now.

First, after a partisan majority of the Supreme Court “elected” a dubiously competent and inexperienced George Bush as president, he squandered the budget surplus on gratuitous tax cuts for the already wealthiest and was woefully unprepared for 9/11.  Donald Trump seeks to bombastically befuddle fearful Americans into repeating those same mistakes.

Second, despite warnings from many quarters, Bush/Cheney deceptively manipulated the purported “intelligence” to justify invading Iraq – perhaps the single worst foreign policy decision in American history.  Last week, Donald Trump embarrassed the entire nation with his woefully inadequate grasps of both foreign policy and military affairs.

Third, rather than embrace the multi-ethnic political reconciliation process started by Jay Garner, Bush/Cheney disbanded the Iraqi military and removed former Baathists from the Iraqi civil service, thereby depriving 250,000 armed Sunnis of gainful unemployment and “fathering” the Sunni-Shiite civil war from which ISIS emerged.  Now, Donald Trump’s bilious bravado invites a shooting war with Iran.

Fourth, over 14 years of 9/11 anniversaries, only two merit mention.  In 2006, Al Qaeda issued a video calling for increased attacks on the U.S., but there were none.  In 2012, bigoted evangelicals released an anti-Muslim video that sparked anti-American riots across the Middle East.  The same Republicans who cut her diplomatic security budget then castigated Hillary Clinton for not foreseeing the “anniversary attack” in Benghazi, and for initially presuming that the video triggered it (as the ringleader later claimed it did).  Now, Donald Trump fosters anti-Muslim bigotry that undercuts U.S. credibility with our Muslim allies, fuels ISIS recruiting, and endangers loyal Muslim-Americans.

Fifth, having turned a “deplorable basket” of Americans against their fellow-citizens of different ethnic and/or religious heritage with a campaign appealing to racists, sexists, nativists, and xenophobes, Trump has turned his divisive rhetoric on the U.S. military – questioning the competence of our brave soldiers and the generals who command them.

Americans should mark the 15th anniversary of 9/11 by resoundingly rejecting Trumpism, and the Daily Sentinel should likewise editorially endorse Hillary Clinton for President.

’ Hung juries are the price we all pay for protections from an overzealous government”

After reading this article several times, I have to question where this came from, and what is the basis for such a statement.  The author apparently does not like “hung juries” and blames the government for this problem. 

There are certainly some in law enforcement and in the judicial system (prosecutors, as well as judges) who measure their own success by the number of convictions they can get.  However, that is what should be addressed, and not engage in “blanket” condemnation of what is called “the government”.  The author should learn to accept the decision of his/her fellow citizens who serve on those juries, whether the decision is for acquittal, conviction or, in this case, a hung jury.

The author of this article, like all too many, wishes to provide his own verdict, in this case he/she believes that the defendant should have been found guilty. 

That is something which far too many like to engage in these days, whether it is found in the judicial system or in politics.  They have moved from the “innocent until proven guilty” to the “guilty until proven innocent” type of mentality, or even “accused therefore guilty”. 

Some of us do not agree with verdicts at times, but we are mature enough to accept them because that is what we have to do. Anything else, and our entire criminal justice system falls apart which, in all too many cases, it already has.  That is seen in the undeniable fact that, in this country, one gets the “justice” one can afford.

I would suggest that the author of this article look into, and address, that aspect of our “judicial system” if he/she is truly concerned with “justice”.

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