I recently listened to a great podcast called Up and Vanished. Yes, despite working in the criminal justice system day in and day out, I too love a good true crime story. Getting to listen to these stories about cases I have no involvement in helps, I think, to strengthen my ability to view cases from closer to the perspective of a juror, who is not intimately familiar with the way our system works.
One of the most illuminating things about listening to this story was how easy it is to speculate, to try to fill in a story about what happened in the absence of evidence. I do not want to ruin the podcast for you, so I will stay away from spoilers save one fairly major one.
The podcast is unique in that it essentially happens in real time. The narrator is investigating the disappearance of a young woman in Georgia, Tara Grinstead. She is presumed dead and the narrator is investigating her disappearance and trying to figure out what happened and who was involved.
In the course of this investigation, numerous potential suspects are explored. With each, my sense of suspicion was aroused, even if there was no real evidence to tie the person to anything nefarious. Sometimes unanswered questions were enough to send my mind spinning trying to fill in the voids.
I suspect that many jurors work this way as well, essentially starting from a place of suspicion rather than presuming innocence, and rather than viewing holes in prosecution evidence as reasons to maintain reasonable doubt perhaps viewing them as mysteries to be solved by the juror themselves. I try to make a point of emphasizing to juries that “solving the case,” is not their job, it is the government’s and if the government has not done so, the juries job is to acquit.
As the Up and Vanished season progresses we are enmeshed in the lives of this small town in Georgia and there are numerous potential suspects who we learn quite a bit about. Then something unexpected happens. The crime is solved. The murderer is captured. And it turns out he was not an ex-boyfriend or a former student or anyone else looked at as a potential suspect. In fact, he was just a drug addict breaking into the house looking for drug money.
I felt silly for letting my mind be so sure that it must have been one of the people closely connected to Ms. Grinstead despite the lack of evidence. This, I thought, is why we require evidence rather than speculation. And this, I thought, is a story I will be telling my next jury.
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