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A mistrial in pursuit of justice

BY SAMUEL CLEARY | SEPTEMBER 30, 2011 7:20 AM

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A mistrial was granted Tuesday in the trial of Charles William Curtis Thompson involving the slaying of John Versypt.

In the presentation of a video containing a police interview with Thompson, Johnson County prosecutor Janet Lyness failed to "stop" the recording at the proper point, allowing the jury a glimpse of a potentially influential segment of evidence. The ramifications of a mistrial, especially in a case with such high stakes, can be devastating.

An error at any level of the legal process is by all means inappropriate, but this particular error, at the hands of legal personnel, is not only unprofessional but deeply unsettling.

When such an error occurs, even at a local level, tremors of grievances will be heard. Mistrials seldom happen, and mistrials by the fault of the prosecution, in this case, Lyness, are even more rare.

The issue here is that this particular mistrial did not only occur at the hands of the prosecution, but also to the legal advantage of the prosecution. There is now potentially biasing information — first in the eyes of the jury and now the eyes of the community — that will ultimately confound, consciously or not, each decision and judgment past by any subsequent body of jurors.

Dependence and trust in government, regardless of locale and level, is a necessity for the proper and fluid functionality of any legal body. These "professionals" are employed by the county (in the case of one of the prosecutors, the state) — and in turn, by us — to decide, at times, the fate of a small few. It is not merely the occurrence of a mistrial but the nature of that occurrence that poses such a significant and unsettling disturbance.

By definition alone, a mistrial is most commonly granted by a lack of verdict or an extensively lengthy trial. We are now presented with a trial in which neither of these tendencies ring true — the judgment of one man, guilty or innocent, now hangs in the balance because of an foolish, organizational mistake at the hands of a tax-paid professional.

That "balance" will now forever sway in the direction of guilt. While mistrials by nature are essentially draws, mere instances of cases being postponed, the reality that the prosecution usually has an advantage in retrials is well-known. Now, consider this advantage coupled with the notion that there is now widely publicized evidence circulating that will further draw a guilty verdict.

Regardless of that evidence's eligibility for application in the courtroom, this mistrial has created a perpetually existent bias against the defendant.

As defense attorney Tyler Johnston said Tuesday, "That bell can't be un-rung."

Think back to Troy Davis, whose fight to prove his innocence lasted more than 20 years and ended last week in execution. What has been learned from that lengthy ordeal? A man's life repeatedly hung in the balance, and it was ultimately taken, even with significant doubt of guilt.

Will that same mistake be made again (if it was, indeed, a mistake)? The prosecution's latest slip-up has done little but guarantee the prolonging of the trial and complicate an already complicated case by confounding any future jury's ability to make a reasonable decision. There is fear now that what seems like probable innocence will be corrupted and contorted into guilt by the mistakes and missteps of a shameful few.

In order for the legal process to function properly, it must obtain and maintain the trust of the people. This most recent and extremely unprofessional error in conduct at the hands of the prosecution not only weakens our trust in the legitimacy of the Thompson case but also our ultimate faith in the functionality and overall managerial conduct of our legal system.

Mistrial in a criminal case to any extent can be viewed as a microcosm of a greater legal arena, especially when it involves guilt by the prosecution on such a petty level. When such errors occur, it is not merely our trust in a fair trial that wavers, but also our ability to trust in a valid pursuit of justice.


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