The Docket: On justice vs. the law, the bitter pill of reasonable doubt

Story highlights

  • In recent high profile cases -- Zimmerman, Anthony, O.J. -- verdict didn't always match popular sentiment
  • Juries were asked to rule on guilt vs. reasonable doubt
  • Although decisions may be consistent with the law, not guilty verdicts leave some wondering
O.J. Simpson, Casey Anthony, George Zimmerman: Sensational trials with national buzz covered gavel-to-gavel on television and on the Internet.
All ended with verdicts that, to some, seemed to make a mockery of the law.
But did they really?
Did George Zimmerman really get away with murder as one of the jurors -- juror B-29 -- in the case suggested in an ABC interview? That same juror said she stands by the verdict, even though she clearly agonized over the outcome.
From a public opinion standpoint, the question is whether Zimmerman committed a crime for which he was acquitted. But from a legal standpoint, the question is whether the prosecution was able to prove each and every element of its case -- whether murder or manslaughter -- beyond a reasonable doubt. In the Zimmerman, Simpson and Anthony cases, the answer was no.
For the prosecution working one of these high profile trials, the failure to prove the case is almost never a result of failure to try. More often than not, it's a result of missing pieces of the puzzle, and the unpredictability of taking a case to trial in the first place.
Think about it. Prosecutors and defense attorneys go to war over a defendant. They chose jurors from a pool presented to them. The jurors promise to decide the case on the merits. But each and every juror brings his or her own life experience to the table. And when they start to deliberate the case, they are on their own.
While we only get see to the biggest cases on TV, this drama over reasonable doubt plays out all across the country every day. And just like juror B-29 in the Zimmerman case, some of the people who decide the facts walk away with a deep sense of regret that marks them for life.
'George Zimmerman got away with murder'
'George Zimmerman got away with murder'

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    'George Zimmerman got away with murder'

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'George Zimmerman got away with murder' 05:15
Juror B29's explanation
Juror B29's explanation

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    Juror B29's explanation

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Juror B29's explanation 03:08
Zimmerman jury's instructions
Zimmerman jury's instructions

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    Zimmerman jury's instructions

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Zimmerman jury's instructions 03:21
That happened to me, too. I am one of those former jurors who is still haunted by a verdict.
Probably my most painful experience with the justice system was when, in the mid-'90s, I was called on to help decide a case. I was chosen as foreman of a jury in a criminal trial in D.C. Superior Court. It was a horrible set of facts. Child molesting. And the outcome is still bitter to me.
The child in question -- a little girl -- had been sexually assaulted. And a grown man with a long list of personal problems had been charged in the case. Part of the evidence showed the girl had contracted a venereal disease as a result of the encounter the defendant was charged with.
The defense was simple and straightforward. The defendant had gotten a checkup right around the time authorities said the girl was assaulted. And the defendant's medical report indicated that he had tested negative for the venereal disease.
The defendant admitted he had been near the child. But he adamantly denied sexually assaulting her. There were no other witnesses. The trial lasted for a couple days, and I believe we deliberated almost as long.
On the first vote, shortly after hearing the judges instructions and retiring to the jury room for deliberations, I was shocked to discover that only two people, myself and a woman juror, had come to the conclusion that the defendant was guilty. I was suspicious of his demeanor. I was skeptical about the medical report.
I struggled, I fought. I demanded that my colleagues on the jury use their common sense. I suggested maybe he took penicillin or something. But all that was conjecture, the other jurors said. There was no evidence of treatment for the disease.
We insulted each other. We yelled. But we kept coming back to that single piece of paper, the medical report that was impossible to deny. Reasonable doubt. After a truly bitter experience, and fighting for justice for that little girl and her family, I voted not guilty and so did the other "holdout".
And the most bitter moment of all, as the jury foreman, was the reading of the verdict. I felt I had let that little girl down. I still do.
I left the courthouse and sat on a stoop in front with my head in my hands. I will never forget that feeling.
Reasonable doubt is a bitter pill to swallow sometimes. But it is the law.