On November 18, 2005, a civil jury found Robert Blake liable for Bonny Bakley’s death. In response to an LA Times article covering the verdict, Blake’s criminal defense attorney, M. Gerald Schwartzbach, wrote a letter to The Times editor (The Message in the Blake Verdict, 12/7/05). In it, Schwartzbach admonishes the paper for stating that the civil jury “rebuffed” the criminal jury which had acquitted Blake.
Schwartzbach cited that the civil jury, upon delivering its verdict, collectively answered a reporter’s question, “Do you …think that he [Blake] pulled the trigger, or do you think that he just caused her death?” by saying that they did not know and were not sure.
The criminal jury was tasked with whether the prosecution had proved its case beyond reasonable doubt. The civil jury was held to a lower burden of proof.
Schwartzbach points out that the criminal jury was posed the same question and answered the same way. He writes, “Based upon these responses, it is clear that the civil jury would also have acquitted Blake in the criminal trial.”
How do two juries come up with different verdicts when presented with the same evidence? Was it the manner in which the evidence was presented, the jury instructions, or the ever-present media?
The criminal jurors said they “couldn’t put the gun in Blake’s hand” and that they didn’t believe the prosecution’s witnesses.
The civil jurors said they didn’t like Blake, that they didn’t like his attitude toward the plaintiff’s attorney, and one said that she didn’t believe Blake when he said he didn’t know how to use a cell phone. The foreman announced that they wanted to “send a message.”
If this was the standard for which they judged Blake responsible, then perhaps it is time for jury reform. The model may be right but clearly the two juries perceived their duties differently.
Should there be some kind of juror education once a jury is selected -- a one-day course in how to deliberate, how to examine evidence, how to interpret jury instructions? Included may be some discussion on the Constitution and ethics as well.
Although a jury deliberates in private, should they be required to present to the trial judge their findings in summary? Jurors are voluntarily asked by the litigating attorneys after the verdict how they reached their decision. Certainly in Blake’s case an appeal will cite jurors’ statements made in and out of court.
Requiring jurors to be accountable to the trial judge may force more juries to stay focused on the evidence.
No man should be found guilty or held liable when a jury cannot say why.
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