It was around 7:00 p.m. on Monday, February 27, 2017. Pete Kratsa and I were sitting in his office waiting for the phone to ring. It was the culmination of a five-day jury trial, weeks of contentious pre-trial litigation, and nearly two years of attempting to persuade the Commonwealth to withdraw the charges and convince two different courts to dismiss the charges. Going to trial was not a fleeting decision. It was a last resort.
Our client was a young college student wrongfully accused of Rape. From the outset, it was our position that the evidence was insufficient as our client was, in fact, innocent. The allegations were illogical. As the case developed, the evidence was speculative and scant. The investigation was unreliable. And there was no DNA. With the client’s permission, we shared exculpatory evidence we uncovered in an effort to have the Commonwealth reconsider their prosecution. Despite our efforts at persuading the Court and the Commonwealth that this prosecution should be withdrawn, we had to go to trial.
On February 21, 2017 we picked our jury. The ideal jury was one that would be fair and thoughtful. The ideal jury would be disciplined enough to not allow the initial charges to taint their ability to properly analyze the evidence and the law. Our client was an active participant in jury selection.
On the second day of trial, one of the jurors prefaced a question in chambers by saying this trial is likely the most significant event he has ever been a part of. That was heartening. We felt that way too. At the end of the fifth day, after the close of the case, the jury wanted to stay into the night to deliberate.
Around 7:00 p.m. that night, Pete and I were in his office waiting for the phone to ring. With nothing to do but wait, we felt helpless. Jury deliberations are painful. Up to that point, a defense attorney has a certain amount of control over a trial. A defense attorney can control trial preparation and how he or she seeks to persuade a jury or judge with evidence and law. Once a jury starts to deliberate, a defense attorney has no more control. “Painful” cannot begin to explain the feeling. Especially when you know your client is innocent and has been through hell over the last two years.
Pete was drinking coffee and fiddling with his phone, repeatedly getting up from his desk and walking around before sitting back down again. I sat on the opposite side of his desk spewing out hypotheses of different outcomes depending on how the jury received certain evidence. At some point, we called another attorney very close to the two of us. I put him on speaker and we continued on with hypotheticals. After politely letting us ramble for long enough, this attorney said the following:
“If you can’t trust the jury, you can’t trust the process. So if you trust the process, you have to trust the jury.”
The cadence of our nation’s fundamental rights flowed through the room. Due process of law. Innocent until proven guilty. Guilt proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Right to trial by jury. We were calm because, as defense attorneys, we knew we had done all we could for our client. We must now trust and rely on the process. So, we had to trust our jury. And we did trust our jury.
A few minutes later, we received the call. The verdict was in. We piled into the courtroom around 8:00 p.m., and our side of the courtroom was filled with our client’s friends and loved ones. The tension was palpable. Count by count, the jury rendered its verdict: not guilty.
After the verdict, the jurors flooded our defense table to hug our client and shake our hands. The following day several jurors reached out to us about the case, stating their high hopes for our client moving forward, and stressing the injustice that was avoided.
Being charged with a crime is a harrowing event for any individual. This is even more strikingly apparent to those wrongfully accused. The initial charge of a crime strips the accused of their reputation. Conviction of the crime is only that much worse because, after the effort of fighting their case, the accused is stripped of reputation and liberty. Trials like ours illustrate the importance of our constitutional right to a jury. Those who serve on a jury are critical to ensuring fairness in the judicial process. The members of our recent jury ensured that our client could take his life back.
The process worked.
Caroline G. Donato is an associate attorney in the firm’s Corporate Compliance, Investigations, and Criminal Defense Practice Group. She concentrates her practice on criminal defense. Whether as part of a team or as lead counsel, Caroline brings energetic dedication to providing effective, results-oriented representation for each client. To schedule a consultation, contact Caroline at 610.840.0294 or [email protected].