As I predicted, the jury pool for the trial of Samuel Robert Hill in Washington County, Arkansas ignored his mental illness defense and threw the book at him.
Whether he was really mentally ill isn’t something I can be certain of, as I didn’t get to hear the evidence that the jury heard during trial. On the other hand, I didn’t enter the jury process with a predisposed belief that mental illness isn’t a ‘real’ thing, either, or that even though the law says juries must take them into account, that mental illness should never be used to defend someone – and if it is, it should be ignored. Also, while I didn’t hear the evidence in the same way as the jury did, I did read it, including many things which were kept away from the jury during the trial. In some ways, I had a more complete picture and better information than they did. That’s how trials, work, though. The distinction in my case is that I heard some of the potential jurors say they didn’t believe in mental illness and that it can’t be used to mitigate a crime or its punishment. While I was dismissed for some unknown reason, citizens were left to serve on the jury who legally didn’t qualify, given their beliefs and biases about mental illness. Maybe the opposing psychiatrists had different levels of credibility or the defendant’s mother was a better witness than her sister, who testified for the defendant. Truth be told, though, none of it really mattered if enough mental illness-deniers got seated on the jury. Most of them wouldn’t admit they believe such things, as it sounds stupid to admit, just as bigots know they can’t claim that certain minorities are better at sports or that some are just angrier people – they believe it in their hearts but have been conditioned to conceal these bigoted or stereotypical ideas from everyone else.
I know that there are people who don’t believe in mental illness, people who think such sufferers can just ‘snap out it,’ or just get busy to distract themselves. It’s almost insurmountable to get past that kind of attitude in people. It’s not based on evidence or science, so argument and reason won’t get you around their mental block.
Likewise, many of those in the jury pool said that they were certain that if a defendant didn’t get on the stand, that this indicated either deceit or outright guilt. Despite the judge and the defense pointing out that this attitude was not acceptable if you were going to serve on a jury, several of those people also remained and undoubtedly served on the jury. Deciding to not testify is a fundamental right in criminal trials. It’s a foundation of our system. Especially if a defendant’s case rests on the idea that he or she is mentally ill, it is ludicrous to hold that against them. The law is clear: you can’t hold it against a defendant. As a citizen, of course you can. Many of the jurors ignored the law and should not have been on the jury deciding a person’s fate. Like most people, those who believe it know they can’t just admit such a belief in the face of scrutiny; they’ll justify or rationalize their bias and tell us that they can decide a case, not realizing that such a bias infects everything that filters through their eyes and ears.
(PS Another bias that I heard people admit to: people charged with crimes are overwhelmingly guilty. Which may or may not be true – but again, jurors aren’t supposed to have this bias.)
I wrote the defense attorney in the trial a couple of times, as he wanted to know my opinion as an outsider. Much of what I wrote in my previous blog post I included in my email to him. The premise of my reply was that I knew before I ever left the building that day during jury selection that the jury pool wasn’t one I would ever want on a trial wherein me or my family was a defendant. There was too much bias. I told the attorney that I guessed every major aspect of the trial and its outcome, both in its decision and punishment. I was careful to not point fingers at a specific person, but I did my best to convey the overwhelming specifics that I observed, all of which combined left me with the idea that the jury pool wasn’t one that should have been hearing that case. In sort, I told the attorney that no matter what he had said or done once the trial started, the conclusion was predetermined. Had the prosecutor been the worst to have ever served, he would have won the case with that jury pool.
Some potential jurors knew more about the case than they admitted, too, and some had access to information after jury selection started. In the age of cellphones, it’s probably impossible to eliminate such temptations. I had some recommendations for different kinds of questions to help weed out these people. I could easily sit and watch a jury pool and come up with easy questions to make them uncomfortable- and more forthcoming and honest during jury selection.
The defense attorney told me that it was apparent that I was exactly the type of juror that both sides needed.
But we’ll never know. My opinion of jury selection and trials went down a notch and I’m left with the feeling, no matter what ‘really’ was the case, that the wrong jury was probably seated.