By REV. ROB McKENZIE
Do juries ever make mistakes? In some people's minds, whatever verdict the jury comes to settles the issue forever. After all, they heard all the evidence from both sides and came to a collective decision.
A jury of one's peers is supposed to protect the average person from false charges brought by an overly-zealous prosecutor. Unfortunately, the jury system is not foolproof. Sometimes there are fools on the jury and sometimes the jury is fooled.
In August of 2005, the Sun Gazette included an article about a Pittsburgh man who was released from prison after serving 19 years for a rape he didn't commit. Thomas Doswell's sons were ages 3 and 5 when he began serving his sentence and the two decades that were stolen from them can never be repaid. Their father was denied parole four times because he refused to accept responsibility for the crime. DNA testing was initially opposed by the prosecutors; but give them credit for vacating the conviction when it proved that Thomas Doswell was innocent.
Doswell had been found guilty by a jury of his "peers" based on "circumstantial evidence" that was "beyond reasonable doubt." There is no doubt that the prosecutors believed he was guilty. And perhaps the jury figured that the District Attorney would not charge an individual unregistered was overwhelming proof. But the jury was fooled in that case.
This article was important to me in 2005 because at that time I was seeking to help a woman in the Muncy State Prison appeal to the board of pardons for a commutation of her sentence. Sherri Robinson was serving a life sentence because of a crime her brother committed when she was 16 and he was 17.
Sherri was with her brother in a store when he pulled out a gun and shot the proprietor's wife. She claimed to not know that her brother planned to commit robbery nor that he had a gun. Her brother was not living at home and his girlfriend had just had a baby. She thought they were going to the store to get a gift together.
In all honesty, I did not believe Sherri's version when I first heard it. Everyone in prison claims to be innocent, I thought.
But then I met Sherri's Outbound teacher from Allentown who still came to visit her. I obtained a copy of the trial transcript, and through the internet, even tracked down some who served on the jury. I met the D.A. who by then was the presiding judge in Lehigh County. I went to the store where the crime took place in Allentown and met the victim's nephew, an eye witness to the crime, who had since become the store owner. And I visited Sherri's guilty brother in prison too.
The more I learned, the more convinced I became of Sherri's innocence. When the trial began in 1982, a fatherless teenage girl was given a court appointed public defender and was tried as an adult. The jury of her peers did not include one African-American. Based on circumstantial evidence, she was found guilty of conspiracy and second degree murder and received an automatic life sentence. As a father, it pained me to think of my own daughter being thrown into an ordeal like that.
In the autumn of 2008, Sherri died of breast cancer after serving 27 years of her life sentence. I am still convinced of her innocence.
And I hope my fate will never be decided at the hands of a jury. In our day it may amount to a roll of the dice because of three sad developments.
When jurors feel that their decision will send a message, justice is seldom the outcome. Sending a message to society or to anyone is not the responsibility of the jury. Their responsibility is to examine the evidence and determine if there is anything that would lead a reasonable person to have doubt. Sending a message only clouds the issue.
When the jury gives extra weight to the arguments made by the prosecutors simply because they represent the justice department, justice is not served. Unfortunately, not all in the justice department are seeking the truth. They are seeking a conviction and they may be motivated by personal agendas. Just ask the Duke lacrosse team. Jurors are not aware of the unlimited resources of the Attorney General's office, nor of the intimidation and threats used in grand juries to coerce testimonies. Judges do not always have the courage to stand against these abuses of power.
When a society becomes secularized and removes God from its public discourse, that society is left with an unreliable moral compass. Elected officials who do not believe in God end up thinking of themselves as god when power is placed in their hands. And jurors without a moral compass are left to the whims of their emotions instead of the convictions of absolute truth. Based on my knowledge of Brett Feese and what I observed at his trial, I believe the jury blundered.
McKenzie is pastor of Bible Baptist Church of Huntersville. Brett Feese attended the church. He was present for some of Feese's recent trial.