Courtroom outcomes not to be taken for granted

Posted: Monday, December 18, 2000

Assistant district attorney Sue McLean scored a courtroom victory Friday afternoon when a panel of jurors voted in favor of the facts as she had presented them in a murder trial. The verdict completed months of preparation and a two-week trial brought about by a violent crime that took place in Juneau last January.

Those who followed the trial of Ronald Smith and Rey Joel Soto for the beating death of Kenneth Thomas may have anticipated the outcome. The comments of some witnesses and interested parties suggested no verdict other than "guilty" was possible.

But verdicts in criminal trials seldom come easily.

McLean's courtroom opponents included the defendants and their lawyers, all of whom looked jurors in the eye and said (in the case of the lawyers) or swore (in the case of the defendants) that things had not happened the way McLean and her witnesses said they had.

All such trials are a test of a jury's attentiveness and discernment. People speaking in respectful tones ask jurors to stretch their credulity up to but not beyond the breaking point. Jurors are told that guilt must be decided "beyond a reasonable doubt." The importance of the word reasonable cannot be overstated.

Defendants and their attorneys and a prosecutor and her witnesses tell conflicting tales. They cannot all be right. Jurors have to decide. The prosecutor must persuade all 12. The defense wins a mistrial and a possible plea bargain if it creates reasonable doubt in the mind of just one juror.

Thus, the return of a unanimous verdict cannot be taken for granted. In the Smith-Soto trial, two men who disregarded human life will be separated from the rest of society, presumably for long time.

The effort of the police, who made the arrest and gathered the evidence; McLean, who orchestrated the courtroom presentation; and the jurors, who weighed the credibility of the participants, should be acknowledged by a safer and grateful public.

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