A Great Week for American Juries, No Matter what Donald Trump Thinks

In two high-profile cases on opposite coasts, jurors resisted public sentiment and declined to convict murder defendants.

December 4, 2017
Court

What a week it was for the American jury! In two high-profile cases, one on each coast, ordinary citizens serving their patriotic duty refused to render murder convictions against two despised, politicized defendants. In each instance, jurors rejected the prosecution’s hyperbole, and the public’s lynch-mob mentality, to render verdicts consistent only with the evidence presented in court. 

First came the mixed verdict in the case of Benghazi terror suspect Ahmed Abu Khattala, charged by federal prosecutors with murder and terrorism for his role in the 2012 attack in Libya that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador. A Washington, D.C. jury acquitted Khattala of 14 of the 18 charges in the indictment, including four murder charges. Why? For starters, because surveillance video showed Khattala arriving at the U.S. diplomatic compound only after the attack was over, evidence that forced prosecutors to concede that the defendant had fired no shot in anger

What did the feds have against Khattala? Ambiguous cell phone records and the dubious testimony of government informants; in other words, precisely the sort of weak circumstantial evidence that prosecutors offer up in the most mundane of domestic trials you never read about. If you’re upset that Khattala wasn't convicted of murder-- if you think the verdict is another reason to take terror cases out of the federal civilian system-- rest assured that he'll still probably end up spending the rest of his life at the Supermax prison in Colorado alongside fellow terror conspirators Ahmed Ressam, Zacarias Moussaoui, and Richard Reid.

Then, Thursday, came another mixed verdict, on the West Coast, in the case of Kate Steinle. She’s the young woman who was shot in the back in July 2015 by an undocumented Mexican immigrant as she walked arm-in-arm with her father along a San Francisco pier. It was a particularly tragic story, made more so by how avoidable it was. The shooter, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, is a serial criminal who had been deported, and who had returned to the U.S. many times. He never should have been on that pier to begin with. But the family's tragedy turned into political farce last summer, when Donald Trump seized on the story as the centerpiece of his political crusade against illegal immigration.

But a California jury did not do what so many expected. The panel of six women and six men did not judge the defendant on the color of his skin, or on his past crimes, or his immigration status. Instead, jurors looked at the evidence and came to one central conclusion; Zarate could not have been aiming at Steinle, and thus could not have intended to commit murder, because the fatal shot had ricocheted off concrete and traveled about 78 feet before hitting her. It was a tragedy, jurors concluded, but mostly a tragic accident. So the defendant was convicted not of murder but of illegally possessing a firearm. Zarate, too, won't be a free man anytime soon, on either side of the border. (In fact, the day after the verdict, a Texas federal judge unsealed an arrest warrant for Zarate, which contended that the shooting violated the terms of his release from custody for a previous immigration violation.)

To appreciate the courage of  the verdict, one need only read President Trump’s Tweeted reaction. Trump, who still maintains the notorious “Central Park Five” are guilty of rape even though they were later exonerated by DNA evidence, called the verdict “disgraceful” and a “complete travesty of justice.” The great legal scholar Tucker Carlson immediately insulted jurors with this whopper: “illegal immigrants are being given better treatment and special privileges because they are here illegally. It is hard to imagine that an American citizen would have been acquitted of charges in the Steinle case.” Then there was the lawyer on Fox News who appeared not to understand basic rules of trial evidence. He couldn’t comprehend why prosecutors were unable to unduly prejudice jurors by telling them about Zarate's criminal history.  

These reactions alone ought to reassure reasonable people everywhere that the jury in the Steinle case, like the jury in the Khattala case, performed their work in the finest tradition of American law. The evidence against both defendants was weaker than the headlines and talking heads made out, jurors noticed, and then did something about it. They did not bend to public pressure, although they knew or should have known that the president of the United States would rant and rave if he didn’t get the verdicts he wanted. There is nothing “disgraceful” about what happened in either courtroom last week. On the contrary, a group of ordinary American citizens showed tremendous integrity and bravery. They chose not to take the easy way out. They deserve applause, not condemnation. And let’s hope we see more of it from jurors in weighty trials to come. 

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Photo: Thinkstock)