When a guilty verdict is a good thing for a defense lawyer

While I think jury trials are horribly inefficient in this era of efficiency above all else, I respect the common sense of jurors. In fact, I am in awe of the collective wisdom of jurors. But, sometimes, things go awry.

Recently, a jury returned a verdict of guilty in a manslaughter case where a man was charged with killing his wife. The verdict was guilty, but, for the defense, that was a good thing.  A reporter was there to catch and release this fascinating story for the rest of us:

First they said “guilty.” Then, in a stunning reversal, a state Superior Court jury acquitted Robert Bell of all charges in the December 2012 shooting of his wife.

Just after 12:35 p.m. Tuesday, jury forewoman Jody Bayer announced they had found the 64-year-old defendant guilty of first-degree manslaughter for killing Svetlana Bell at their New Fairfield home. But that verdict then set off a series of twists and turns that had courtroom observers on the edge of their seats, asking each other what was happening.

While jurors were being individually polled, one asked a question about the process of delivering a verdict in a case where the killing itself was never in dispute and the defense was based on a claim of self-defense. It soon became clear that the jurors were uncertain if they had made a mistake.

Judge Robin Pavia sent them back into the jury room, and following an exchange of notes with them and conferences with attorneys, said she was not accepting the guilty finding. She then directed jurors to resume deliberations.

They returned 10 minutes later, about an hour after their guilty finding, and pronounced Bell not guilty.

John Pirro, Jury convicts, then acquits Bell in manslaughter casestamfordadvocate.com (December 3, 2013).

In short, the jury believed that they first had to find the defendant guilty of the killing before they could find him not guilty by reason of self-defense. That is not entirely crazy.

The defense lawyer said it best. “‘To have your heart fall with them announcing a verdict of guilty, and then to realize it was simply they had not fully announced their verdict … It was kind of a death by degrees, and then elation,’ defense attorney John Gulash said afterward.”

There is an important lesson or two to be learned from this case for trial lawyers and trial judges alike. For you experienced practitioners, tell us what those lessons might be.

RGK

PS Thanks to Gary Hochman for the tip.

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