Monday, October 06, 2008

In the criminal justice system...

My daughter KM, a sophomore at the local junior college, was assigned to observe a trial for her criminal justice class. Today, she and I sojourned to the county courthouse and spent an intriguing afternoon in criminal court.

The trial we dropped in on had been in session for several days. We arrived in time to hear the final witness — which happened to be the defendant — and the closing arguments by the two contending attorneys.

Because the jurors have not, at this writing, begun to deliberate, I'll remain purposefully non-specific in describing the case. The defendant is facing three interrelated felony counts, stemming from a weapon discovered by Coast Guard officers aboard a boat the defendant owns. The defendant, who as a previously convicted felon is not permitted to possess a firearm, testified that the weapon in question belonged to a friend who had been living on the boat for a period of time. The defendant denied any knowledge of the weapon's existence until shortly before the Coast Guard arrived to rescue the two sailors during a storm at sea.

We see quite a few trials portrayed on television, both in fictional courtroom dramas such as Law & Order and in semi-documentary programming of the kind often shown on the channel that used to call itself Court TV. (It now goes by the peculiar moniker "truTV," in case you hadn't noticed.) It was interesting to see how reality differs from what we observe on the tube (TV programs edit out all of the tedious procedural folderol that happens), and surprising to see in how many ways the portrayals accurately reflect the nuances of courtroom theater.

The judge overseeing this particular case was familiar to me: I spent three days as a prospective juror in his courtroom on my last tour of jury duty. (I wasn't selected for the jury — the slots were filled before I was called to the jury box.) I didn't know either attorney, but as a citizen, I was pleased to note how creditably and efficiently both the prosecutor and the public defender represented their sides.

Based on the evidence we heard, I don't know whether the jury will find the defendant guilty or not guilty. But I feel confident that the fellow's case received a fair presentation, and that justice will be served.

That's what it's supposed to be about, isn't it?

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