Some of the greatest drama can be found not only network TV or the movies, but in real-life courtrooms. And there are few better at delivering that drama than New Smyrna Beach criminal attorney Bill Hathaway, who I have witnessed presenting several child molestations and one knife murder to juries with great skill and presence when he was a prosecutor.
I have been told that the State Attorney's Office often saved the big cases for him until he went into private practice as a criminal defense attorney several years back.
I have had the unique opportunity of not only witnessing drama in the courtroom as a visitor, but also having served on a criminal jury and for a term on a Volusia County grand jury.
I remember when I was selected for a jury in a child molestation trial in DeLand held under the the late Honorable Judge Uriel Blount. It turned into one of the most exciting and stressful times of my life.
The case unfolded in little pieces and the testimony sometimes abruptly ended just when it appeared we were going to learn something important. The flow of the case was that the accused often had several little children playing at his house. On the day in question the defendant, lured the little girl back into his bedroom, did his foul deed and then put on a pair of his daughter's underwear on her as her own panties had blood on them. The grandmother discovered the crime much later when she found the little girl's underwear.
After calling the authorities, the mother, grandmother and police arrived at the defendant’s door to confront him. At this point in the trial the testimony just stopped. To this day no one on the jury has the faintest idea what happened next. This was especially frustrating to the jury because we were hoping that the confrontation would help unlock the case.
On TV's Perry Mason from the 1950s, there was always a big piece of evidence or “silver bullet” to blow the case wide open. We had no such “silver bullet.” This case would have to be proven by analysis.
To do the analysis one uses a weighing process that obeys the following three conditions:
First, each individual piece of evidence is properly weighed;
Second, the weight of the complete case against the defendant is the sum of the weights of each piece of evidence;
Third, the chance of a defendant being innocent is defined as one chance in 1 followed by a number of zeros equal to the weight of the case against him.
For example, if the weight of the case against the defendant is 3, then the chances of his innocence is 1 in 1000. If the weight of the case is 4, then the chances of his innocence is 1 in 10,000 and so on. If the weight came out to a number between 3 and 4, then the chances of his innocence is between 1 in 1000 and 1 in 10,000.
Many of the nation's famous cases have weights of well over 10. For example the famous Lindberg kidnapping case has a weight of 12 or more. If Bruno Hauptmann was innocent he was one of the most unlucky men on earth.
Returning to the case of the local child molester, the evidence had a weight of 10 or more, so we sent him up the river after a long deliberation. It was a grueling but exciting ordeal.
Needless to say a case can be quite powerful but if the case is spread around in many low weight pieces of evidence it will be a hard case to win since not too many jurors know how to evaluate a lot of little pieces of evidence. And hell may freeze over before any defense attorney lets such a person on a jury.
The first trial in Volusia County using DNA evidence was completely different from the child molestation case in that the evidence included two great “silver bullets.”
First the defendant left a beautiful set of his fingerprints on the electric meter when he unscrewed it to plunge the house into darkness so the victim couldn’t see him. Next he left a copious sample of his DNA in the victim when he raped her. With these two pieces of evidence the weight of the case was over 14. The jury quickly declared the defendant guilty.
As someone taking in the trial as a courtroom spectator, I could feel the frustration of the defense council who was trying to convince the jury that the case was weak because there were no eye witnesses. Despite his best efforts, he came across as silly and pathetic.
Stranger still, the defendant’s wife thought he was innocent and was quite angry at the outcome. Many of us would like to know the secret of his charm.
I've watched some mundane cases that even had bizarre twists. In a run of the mill robbery in which the defendant was accused of forcibly taking money from a woman on a bicycle, the state completely failed to prove its case. In fact, it wasn’t clear if a robbery had even taken place much less that the defendant was guilty. Instead of asking the judge for a dismissal for lack of evidence, the defense attorney put the defendant on the stand. The defendant then proceeded to confess to the crime.
The jury took a long time coming up with a verdict of guilty to the lesser charge.
One of the jurors told me that the reasons the decision took so long was that the jurors had a long discussion of what was wrong with the defense attorney.
In the famous West Palm Beach rape case involving William Kennedy Smith, the weight of the case against him was about 3 to 5.
This indicates that he was probably guilty, but the evidence was too weak for a conviction. It was interesting to note that one of the jurors based her innocent vote solely on a piece of evidence that had virtually no weight. In other words it was equally likely to happen whether he was guilty or innocent.
Note that weighting a case in this fashion gives a completely analytical method to define reasonable doubt. Anyone who has listened to a judge’s legal mumbo jumbo defining reasonable doubt should appreciate this.
For murder 1, my personal level of reasonable doubt is anything below weight 8 (one chance in a hundred million of innocence). This is reasonable since a sound murder investigation will usually produce a case with a weight well over 10.
If you get a chance to be on a grand jury take it. That is pure adventure and excitement. Furthermore, you don’t have to worry about convicting an innocent person because that is up to a subsequent jury or judge at trial.
All you have to do is decide if there is a case worth taking to trial in which the panel returns a "true bill" meaning an indictment or "no true bill" meaning no indictment.
Grand juries are used primarily for death penalty and life imprisonment cases.
One interesting case we had when IZ was a member of the grand jury involved a man who pulled up to the police station in his car with a dead wife and a fishy story. We agreed to let a trial jury have that one.
We had many other fascinating cases. I couldn't wait for the grand jury to meet and it was a sad day when my term on the panel was over.