Archive for the ‘#neveragain’ Tag

When Juries Take a Stand   1 comment

This is Brad. Lela is headed home today, so this may be my last post for a while. Or not. I sort am enjoying this.

 

About 25 years ago, I served on a Murder One trial here in Fairbanks.

WG was a miner in the Central area, northeast of town along the Steese Highway. He had a wife and a neighbor who was disgruntled with him. This is a typical story of miners in the smaller towns. They always suspect one another of stealing from each other. This neighbor had accused WG of mining on his land and had recently vandalized some of WG’s equipment. Some of these miners use chemicals to extract the gold from the rock and mercury poisoning can make you paranoid. I’m not sure that was the case in this situation. It’s just an explanation for what happened that I feel comfortable with.

One morning, WG and his wife decided to go to breakfast at the Central Roadhouse in the tiny town of Central. I’m not sure why they didn’t take a truck. It might have been farther because they would have needed to stay on the roads. Anyway, they took a four-wheeler. When traveling through Alaska’s bear-infested wilderness on a four-wheeler, it is smart to be armed, so both were carrying sidearms and since they were on a four-wheeler, they couldn’t just leave them in the vehicle. Alaska at the time allowed (still does) open-carry and they probably weren’t going to be the only ones in the breakfast crowd wearing guns. When I first got here 10 years before, it shocked me how comfortable people here are with guns.

WG had no way of knowing that his neighbor (whose name I’ve long ago forgotten, so we’re just going to call him JD for Joe Doe) was also having breakfast at the roadhouse. As WG and his wife (MWG) were getting off their four-wheeler in the parking lot, JD was smoking a cigarette on the porch. For whatever reason, he drew his own weapon and began shooting at them, hitting MWG critically and clipping WB. JD’s wife/girlfriend (MJD) was in the roadhouse. When everyone heard the gunshots, she ran out a back entrance and grabbed a semi-auto 22 from their truck. First, she sprayed the front wall of the roadhouse with bullets (remember, there are people gathered at those windows) and then she started shooting at WG.

He’d been shot. He was bleeding. His wife was dying. He knew where the initial shots came from, but he later testified that he didn’t know where this new threat was coming from. He just knew it needed to stop. So he drew his 44, walked up onto the porch and fired all six shots into JD. Five hit home. Patrons and roadhouse staff subdued MJD and the State Troopers (140 miles away in Fairbanks) were called.

At the time (Fall 1992), Alaska had a castle doctrine that stated you had a right to defend yourself in your home or business, but you also had to take opportunity to withdraw if you could. And of course, self-defense in a public setting was illegal because there are all sorts of venues for running away. The new assistant DA in Fairbanks was brand-new up from California, where this sort of behavior was illegal. She wanted a win, to make herself look good to her bosses and to show Alaskans what “civilization” looked like. All throughout the trial, she would say “this is not how civilized people settle disagreements.” There was no need to be armed in that situation, she said. He had the whole world to retreat to. He’d advanced on JD, not the other way around. JD hadn’t been able to retreat and he thought himself in danger, so he had the higher “right” to self-defense. The DA depicted WG as the aggressor in the whole situation. I know that’s the job of a DA.

Her haughty attitude toward the “uncivilized” of Alaska reminded me of my own attitude a decade before and I shared it with Lela, who simply said “That’s why we’re a federation, so people like her can live in California and the sensible people can live somewhere else.” I stopped into work on my way to jury duty the next morning and the husband of one of my coworkers offered me a pamphlet from the Fully Informed Jury Association, the central tenet of which is that juries have a right and an obligation to rule not just on the facts of the case, but on the law itself.

The defense did a good job of bringing out that WG hadn’t initiated the attack and that carrying a gun in bear country is standard practice. He asked witness after witness if they were armed that day and several of them were because they’d just come from bear country. The attorney pointed out that the police were 140 miles away. When WG testified, he said his concern at the time was his wife, down on the ground, bleeding out.

That night, Lela went to the library and researched the references in the pamphlet and then the next day we heard closing arguments, which just solidified for me that this DA was asking us to go against common sense and follow the law exactly, even if it was wrong.

We walked into the jury room and one of the men asked “If that had been your wife, would you have retreated, leaving her in a free fire zone, and waited for an hour and a half for the cops to arrive?” Every man in the jury said “hell, no.” Half the jury voted to acquit and half the jury voted to convict. We broke between those who applied common sense – the so-called reasonable man principle — and those who said “the law is that you have to retreat.” I announced that I was never voting to convict WG of murder. One of the other men joined me. Pretty soon there were four of us who were never going home until we got an acquittal … arrayed against a single military wife who kept saying “but the law says”. I threw down the pamphlet and invited everyone to consider what it said.

Jury deliberations stretched into a second day as slowly the vote swung toward acquittal. But that military wife was not going to budge. “We can’t just ignore the law. Nobody else in the country does that. You Alaskans need to get with the rest of the world.” Our answer was “no, no, we don’t. If the law is wrong, then we shouldn’t agree with it.”

With the vote hanging at 9-3 to acquitt, the jury foreman was asked by the judge why it was taking so long and the foreman almost said “We’re hung”, but he held off. The vote was really one woman with two other women lockstepping with her against all the rest of us. Now the other women who were voting to acquitted started on these three. They wanted to go home and they knew that wasn’t happening until we reached a verdict. Someone pointed out that if we hung this jury, there’d be a second trial which even the hold-outs thought would be unfair. The two less-entrenched women voted for acquittal. And then we all said — “We are never leaving unless you vote for acquittal.” And, she did, mainly because her husband insisted, she said.

“He’s going to go out and kill more people.”

WG wept when they read the verdict. His wife had died and he was alone and, I later learned, completely broke, but he was free. We worked together several years later at a job and he was a nice guy, quietly involved in local events and raising a family with his second wife.

We did good, but that’s how easily a reasonable man could have been doing 99 years in prison for exercising the right to self-defense.

Jacquie Biggar-USA Today Best-selling author

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