At the end of November, a jury in San Francisco acquitted Jose Ines Garcia
Zarate of the murder of Kate Steinle. As anyone who has not been living
under a rock for the last month knows, uproar ensued. The case has drawn
uncommon national attention, ostensibly because the accused was an undocumented
immigrant who had previously been deported and convicted of illegally
re-entering the country (though as is often the case when local criminal
cases grab unwarranted national headlines, it certainly helped that the
victim was an attractive young white woman). When the jury returned an
acquittal not just as to the 1st degree murder as charged, but also the lesser included charge of manslaughter,
only convicting Zarate of the illegal possession of the firearm used in
the homicide, the Build the Wall crowd predictably lost their feeble minds.
Both Trump and his Confederacy loving flunky Jeff Sessions criticized the
jury’s verdict as a travesty of justice. I am not writing today
to defend the verdict as correct. I do not frankly know enough about the
facts of the case to weigh in on whether I agree with the verdict (although
I recognize that the optics and emotions of a case like this do not generally
set the stage for an acquittal and that the jury certainly did not make
what would have been the easier choice lending a lot of credibility to
their verdict in my mind). Instead, I write today to talk about some of
the common nonsense that gets spewed when an acquittal upsets the law
and order folks.
A criminal jury trial is:
- About justice for the victims
- A search for the truth
- None of the above
If you picked C, you might have been awake in your high school civics class!
A criminal jury is about one thing and one thing only: whether the government
can present sufficient admissible evidence to prove the accusations it
has made beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s it. If it can, the defendant
is convicted. If it cannot, the defendant is found Not Guilty, which anyone
paying attention has a very different meaning than Innocent.
So a criminal jury trial is neither about justice for a victim nor is it
a search for the truth. This is underscored by who the plaintiff is in
a criminal case: The People a/k/a society at large. The plaintiff is not
the victim of the crime. In a civil case, where a person can seek justice
for wrongs committed against them, the named plaintiff IS the alleged victim.
In addition, a criminal jury trial is an opportunity to “figure out
what happened” or “search for the truth” as prosecutors
are fond of suggesting. By the time a criminal case proceeds to trial,
the search should be over. By the time of trial. the government has searched
and decided they believe they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that
the accused committed the crimes they are charged with. The jury is there
for one and only one reason: to tell the government whether they have
done so or not.
That is all that happened in San Francisco, a jury told the government:
sorry, not good enough.