Over Spring Break, I spent many days at the federal courthouse in my community where my mother serves as a federal judge. I was sitting face-to-face with a couple bringing civil charges against a veteran sergeant for the “unjustified” shooting and killing of their son, a claim based on an alleged violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution concerning excessive use of force. The jury was instructed to decide whether the sergeant was justified or not in his use of force. If he was justified in his use of deadly force, he would not be found liable for the son’s death; if he was unjustified, then he would be found liable and required to pay compensation numbering in millions of dollars to the victim’s parents. Despite the high emotional and monetary stakes, trials like this happen everyday in the U.S. Secluded in our tight knit, insulated community, we are often blind to the responsibilities of being an American citizen and to the failures of our government and legal system.
The drama of the trial arose from conflicting accounts of the event. The sergeant was the only one who could testify. With the victim deceased, the absence of surveillance, and no witnesses, the night was reconstructed for the jury by the sergeant’s account and by the evidence of the crime scene including blood splatter, the location of the bullet casings, and the angle of the bullet in the victim’s body. The scientific evidence presented contradicted the sergeant’s testimony. As I listened to each side pose their respective theories of the case and call their expert witnesses to support their theories, it struck me that both sides posed very plausible scenarios.
The greatest issue, however, was not the inherent difficulty of working through a trial, but how poorly the proceedings were handled. Due to the inefficiency and inefficacy of the legal system, key evidence was lost, destroyed, or never collected. This evidence, the plaintiff argued, could have helped answer the gaping questions that were presented to the jurors. Even in the face of certain objective scientific evidence that supported the plaintiff’s account of the events, among the officers who testified, there seemed to be an inherent bias in their testimony.
After days of deliberation, the answer was still unclear to me. Over the course of the trial, I developed an appreciation for the role of the jurors in any case, but it seemed to me that the problem of deciding a difficult case like this lay inherent in the jury system. Before commencing their deliberations, the judge reminded the jurors of their important responsibility, explaining that jury service is one of three ways to fulfill our civic duty as citizens, along with military service and voting. Although some cases lend themselves to a much clearer and easily resolved process, men and women who sit on juries in state and federal courts around this country have difficult decisions to make. Their participation is what helps ensure justice and the preservation of a society based on the rule of law. Unfortunately, in some cases, such as this one, trials occasionally end with the members of the jury in disagreement and with a failure to reach unanimity. After almost four years of preparation and hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in this civil lawsuit, it was heartbreaking to witness a hung jury after two long days of deliberation. As a result, the trial was declared a mistrial and can either be retried or settled with both parties agreeing to resolve their differences outside of court.
It seemed to me like this excessive waste of resources and time was a result of a broken system, a mishandling of administrative proceedings. These are the issues that Andover students will encounter when we graduate, but for now, they are swept away in favor of more exciting topics. These complex, chaotic situations are what we will be dealing with when we graduate, things that have real weight and consequence, things that are all too easy to ignore right now. Under the circumstances of this particular case, I felt a sense of relief that I did not yet have a say.
Adin McAuliffe is a Junior from West Palm Beach, Fla.