11 April 2005

In reference to the jury discussion below a reader asks:
(1) Did you consider the possibility that the prosecutor looks forward to an objective bunch of people listening to the witnesses and cutting through all of the [garbage] that a defense attorney or his/her client have been throwing out? (2) Or that judges might be a little too lenient because the volume of crime they're exposed to means they don't take the crimes as seriously as a "regular person?"
In answer to the first question, my answer is no. Judges are going to cut through any garbage much more harshly than a jury will. Why? Because the judge has been sitting in his courtroom for the last ten years hearing the same stories from the same people day after day, month after month, year after year. He's heard the defense the attorney is attempting 100 times and hasn't believed it 99. The majority of "trials" he's seen have really been slow guilty pleas. I'm not saying that judges set out to be biased but everybody who works in criminal law develops a level of bias. It's just the opposite of the point you raise in the second question: the volume of guilty defendants seen in the courtroom tends to predispose a judge to an assumption of guilt. Juries tend to come to court with an assumption that a person wouldn't be charged if he weren't guilty but they don't have years of experiential bias reinforcing that view; thus, they are easier to get to decide certain facts in Client's favor than a judge would have been.

The answer to the second question is yes and no. While much of it has been mitigated by guidelines, every judge has tendencies and if they were deciding the sentence entirely on their own some would undersentence and some would oversentence. And every person who works in a courtroom for any period of time gets a little blase about repetitive "minor" crimes. Think about it for a second, if the judge got red faced and snarling every time a grand larceny (in Virginia a theft of $200 or more) was brought before his bench he'd have a heart attack about his second year on the bench. I'm sure that before guidelines judges fell into habits when they sentenced certain common offenses whether they were overly lenient or overly harsh. Now they tend to just sentence these crimes per the guidelines.

In the end, my belief is that the vast majority of prosecutors and judges are honest men and women doing there jobs as best they can. However, the constitutional jury protection assumes that they are not. The right to a jury is meant to protect against prosecutors or judges out of step with the community for whatever reason. Sadly, I cannot say that it provides that protection in Virginia. The primary reason for that? Jury sentencing.

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