Friday, April 11, 2008

Simple Words - Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

by Katherine Scardino

Cpl. Cesar Laurean has been captured after a massive manhunt for the suspected killer of his girlfriend, fellow Marine Cpl. Maria Lauterbach. Cpl. Lauterbach died a horrendous death, which arouses the sensibilities of any reasonable person. It screams for revenge and justice.

Justice - that’s a magic word in the United States that is used freely and frequently. Do we really know what it means? To the ordinary citizen, justice probably means something like "the guilty get put in prison." But, let’s all - especially the news media - not forget one thing. The evidence used in a trial against an accused person must rise to the highest level of proof - beyond a reasonable doubt.

That is not "beyond a shadow of a doubt" as you may hear so often on television crime shows, or "probably committed" the crime. There are several levels or standards of proof for evidence in various types of cases. For instance, if a State agency is attempting to terminate a citizen’s parental rights - meaning that individual would no longer be considered, for any purposes, as the biological parent of his/her child, the standard of proof that must be met by the petitioner, the State agency, is "clear and convincing" evidence. That is still below the standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Our forefathers set up this system of criminal justice for a specific reason. Remember - they were recently in America from England, where their homes were invaded, property taken, without probable cause. It just happened - and it happened to innocent people as well as guilty people. Our forefathers - like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams - believed they could devise a system of government that would assure these new Americans that these violations would not happen in this new independent nation. We are the recipients of this wonderful criminal justice system that says a person is innocent until proven guilty - and the evidence to prove guilt must rise to the highest standard of proof - beyond a reasonable doubt.

So, when we are reading these news articles about this horrendous crime, let’s all not forget that we must give Cpl. Laurean the benefit of the doubt as to his guilt until the evidence presents itself - but it cannot be - should not be - evidence that allows for any "reasonable doubt" as to his guilt.

There are news reports about certain people being convicted, spending years in prison, and later exonerated by some piece of evidence, whether it be DNA or some other physical evidence. We know these miscarriages of justice happen, and one way to avoid a wrongful conviction is to be careful in how we look at the evidence and how we present the evidence.

I, for one, will consider Cpl. Lauren innocent until all the evidence has been presented to a jury of twelve people. That’s his right - and more importantly - it is YOUR right. Let’s cherish it. It is not a good system unless we make it so.


Anonymous said...

Didn't he confess to her murder in a letter his wife took to police??

Anonymous said...

My recollection is that he said he buried the body but did not murder her. Even in cases with full statements, we should always test the statement for a "false confession". This is an oddity that has been investigated by respected experts in the field. I am not saying that is the case here - just another reason why we should wait until we know all the evidence. Thanks for your comment.

Anonymous said...

As citizens of our free country, we have a right to assess the circumstances and known evidence, including the behavior of an individual such as Laurean (you mis-spelled his name) and draw our own conclusions. I don't think it serves any useful purpose within our society to abandon our common sense.

And please don't forget (I know you haven't because your a defense atty.), that much actual evidence is never allowed into court, so simply waiting for it to materialize in front of a jury may never happen.

And lastly, it's worth a metion that these perps enjoy more rights than anyone involved in the storm of misery they've created.
Hopefully YOU can keep THAT in mind too.

Vanessa Leggett said...

A. - For whatever it's worth, I proposed this story idea this morning and Katherine wrote it in a rush. Frankly, I'm surprised that she only misspelled the man's name once, with names like Laurean and Lauterbach to keep up with. At least she didn't get the victim's name wrong :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification Vanessa. The mis-spelling wasn't a big deal to me, but I did feel inclined to point it out.

I've gotta say that this whole blog post smacks of hypocrisy.
Maybe not. Maybe I'm being hasty. But it is Katharine Scardino's job to keep evidence away from the jury. It is her job to defend the guilty. Fine. But to infer to us that we have a moral obligation to wait for a jury verdict, when there's always so much more to it in our justice system, seems to assume we're morons.

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with you A. Criminals enjoy many more judicial benefits than victims and when you get one that gives a confession, even a partial one, and then flee the country, why would anyone think they owe him the benefit of the doubt??

It takes a certain kind of person to be a defense attorney and I definitely do not possess any of those qualities. And I have too much of a conscience.

Vanessa Leggett said...

A. and Leah -

I appreciate your viewpoints. At the same time, I don't see Katherine's post as hypocritical. I have had the (mis?)fortune of seeing the system from multiple perspectives. I have witnessed firsthand how sources, lawyers, etc. use the news media to influence the jury pool -- sometimes going so far as to deliberately feed the press misinformation. Voir dire is supposed to weed out those who have been influenced, but not everyone admits to what they've heard about a case.

At the same time, while the system is designed so that juries only see evidence a court deems admissible, I believe that the public at large has a right to know facts as they emerge--even those that aren't inadmissible in a courtroom. Unrestrained public debate is the essence of our democracy.

Evidence is not kept from a jury to protect criminals or to grant them rights denied to others. Our Constitution exists to protect the innocent from being railroaded. Safeguarding against wrongful convictions--and it does happen*--means that EVERY American (guilty or innocent) is entitled to a zealous defense.

Defense attorneys can seem like devils to those who have been victimized. But to those wrongly accused and falsely convicted, they are heroes.

It's not that defense attorneys don't have consciences -- quite the opposite. If you saw Katherine's last post, you read

"This is the type of case that defense lawyers lose sleep over! It is a lot easier on the brain and the emotions to represent someone you know or feel fairly sure is guilty. Your work is the same - the intensity is not. So, now, after 24 years of practicing law, when I hear that question 'How do you represent people you know are guilty?' I tell them it is easy because there may be that one truly innocent person sitting next to me at counsel table, and I welcome the opportunity to be his lawyer."

Read the rest of that post here:

* See Diane Fanning's last post

Anonymous said...

Vanessa says:
"Unrestrained public debate is the essence of our democracy."

I agree.

Vanessa says:
"evidence is not kept from a jury to protect criminals or to grant them rights denied to others."

I disagree.

How many times have we seen, or even experienced something in court (testimony/fact) not allowed to be brought in wrt a defendant, yet a victim or witness can have practically anything brought upon them, if it so please the defense.

This is what I DO like (since I've been so vocal about what I don't); that for the most part, journalists and true crime writers are the venue for truth and information. That the facts can be out there, so we can build informed opinions with which to protect ourselves and keep our families safe.
And that the guilty can be in the scope of the prudent, even if they never spend one day behind bars.

Anonymous said...

If Laurean even goes to trial, the only way he won't be convicted is if you can get 12 jurors without enough gray matter in their brains to feed an Ethopian. That is assuming he is extradited and doesn't plea out.

This post about "innocent until proven guilty" would have been better if you cited a case that was ambiguous and didn't have as much evidence against the accused. Let's say theorecically the McCanns were arrested for the murder of their daughter....with only the info we currently have. Then this post would make sense.

Like my Grandma use to say: "Don't piss on me and tell me it's raining"!!

Vanessa Leggett said...

A. - I'm not saying that criminals are sometimes unfairly protected by Constitutional safeguards meant to shield the innocent. But that inevitable byproduct is not the intent or spirit of the rules governing admissibility, which were formulated to protect the innocent. Perhaps this will better illustrate my point: It's not right that some selfish people illegally use parking spaces meant for the disabled. But that does not mean we should outlaw those special parking spaces for those who need them.

Anonymous said...

BTW, I happen to be a paralegal and I am very familiar with Voir dire. It was INTENDED to be used to weed out those who may have been influenced but it is used by attorneys to weed out those prospective jurors that they think will be adverse to their side of the case.

Anonymous said...

I think we are posting at the same time tonight.

Vanessa says:

"evidence is not kept from a jury to protect criminals or to grant them rights denied to others."

Wrong! It is often kept from a jury because it is viewed as something that would have a negative influence on the jury's decision. Happens all the time.

Unknown said...

Although sometimes, a person's guilt seems obvious, the glory of the constitution is that even that person has the right to a defense. Good, principled defense attorneys hold this right sacred. They will work as hard as possible for that client abd do anything within the boundaries of professional ethics for their client no matter how guilty the client looks.
To a lot of people, the guilt of Kerry Max Cook was obvious and yet he was finally vindicated and the "evidence" presented in court declared fradulent by a judge--thanks to dedicated, determined defense attorneys.
There are defense attorneys who don't follow ethical guidelines and trample on victims to win a case just as there are prosecutors who've lost sight of their mission and will do anything to win. But there are many good, ethical people practicing law on both sides of the courtroom.
I don't think I could be a defense attorney. I'd worry too much that I did something that allowed a criminal to be set free on a technicality. But, then again, I don't think I could be a prosecutor either. I'd worry that I'd ruined an innocent person's life or made a plea bargain with a monster.

Vanessa Leggett said...

A. and Leah -

Before you criticize my quote, please consider it in context. (What are you, reporters? :)

Here is what I said:

"Evidence is not kept from a jury to protect criminals or to grant them rights denied to others. Our Constitution exists to protect the innocent from being railroaded."

In other words, evidence is inadmissible when it has the potential to violate civil liberties that belong to all citizens, whether they're ultimately found innocent or guilty.

Leah wrote:

"[Evidence] is often kept from a jury because it is viewed as something that would have a negative influence on the jury's decision."

It's not a "negative" influence, Leah, but an unfair influence. (Negative is relative in a courtroom: What's negative for one side is positive for the other.)

Anonymous said...

Dianne, I agree with you except that the Constitution doesn't take the place of what we know to be true. Everyone is allowed their day in court...that is a constitutional right. Whoever serves as his jury has an obligation but the rest of the US citizens do not.

The fact of the matter is that a lot of people go to trial that are guilty but they are acquitted.

Anonymous said...

Right...unfair towards the defendant! Otherwise it would be allowed as evidence.

Vanessa Leggett said...

Leah, I don't know how else to say it: The Constitution and rules of evidence are in place to protect the innocent from being railroaded. It is true that only defendants can be railroaded.

Vanessa Leggett said...

The right to a fair trial / due process belongs to the accused, not to the prosecution. It might not seem right or fair when criminals get away with murder, but it is the law.

Unknown said...

You are right, the assumption of innocence does not obligate anyone outside of the process--like you and I are with most cases in the news--to withhold judgment until the outcome of the trial or to agree with the verdict of the jury.
However, it is vital that no matter our perception that we still hold that principle of innocence in high regard.
The laws about evidence are based on that principle. But they are not to protect the defendant but to protect the system. They are a safeguard keeping those in power--the police, the prosecutors, the courts--from abusing their power. It is not a perfect or foolproof safeguard but it holds them to a standard that they violate at their peril.
Every time, a perpetrator gets a break he doesn't deserve because of these rules, remember that there is another side of the coin--the side that offers protection for the innocent and the wrongfully accused. It keeps the abuse of power from becoming a universal way of doing business.

Pat Brown said...

Whew! Good discussion and strong feelings! Here are my thoughts to add some fuel to make a bonfire ::laughs::

We know that a woman, Lauterbach, is dead.

We know that Laurean burned her up in a fire pit in his back yard.

We know Laurean and Lauterbach had some sort of relationship.

We know Lauterbach was pregnant but there is no proof by whom.

We know Lauterbach claimed Laurean raped her but we have no evidence that this is true.

We have been told that Lauterbach had a cut on the left side of her throat and a cracked skull.

We do not know that Laurean cut her throat or cracked her skull. In theory, she could have cut her own throat and fallen and cracked her head on an cast iron log holder. Figuring out what happened is for crime scene analysis and forensics to determine.

This is where the prosecution must prove its case.

As for public opinion, sure we can have it.

As I analyze this case from the outside, from what questionable info I have heard, I theorize:

Laurean and Lauterbach had consensual sex. She got pregnant. She didn't want to admit it to the Marines and so she lied and said she was raped (her mother's description makes it seem as if Lauterbach was quite a liar and possible somewhat psychopathic).

Now Laurean is in trouble. He has committed adultery, gotten a girl pregnant, and is accused of rape. He is not going to be too happy.

What happened after that is a good question. Did Lauterbach come willingly to his house? Did she try to blackmail him? Did he lure her? Did he coldbloodedly kill her? Was there an argument, an increasing rage and he hit her and then cut her throat?
Did she cut her throat as he said (and some people do this so it is not as rare as one thinks) and he finished her off as she lay on the floor? Did she cut her throat and fall and crack her skull and Laurean freaked out and figured he would be charged with murder so he decided to cover it up and run?

I will have to say, I believe both of these characters had questionable behavior and I tend believe Lauterbach came over willingly to Laurean's house to try to get something out of him. I believe the most likely scenario is a rage killing . But everything depends on the evidence and the ability to prove what happened.

I will be curious to see how this turns out in court.

Anonymous said...

What I wonder is at what point his wife found out about Lauterbach. I think he killed because he knew he fathered her child, rape or not, and as soon as she delievered the baby, he wouldn't be able to deny it any longer. And like a lot of men who screw around, he probably told her he would leave his wife for her, buy her the house with the white picket fence, etc, etc and she believed him. If Lauterbach was upset with him, this is likely why. I think he asked her to come to his house when his wife wouldn't be there under the pretense of talking about their situation but with the intent of killing her instead.

I don't believe she cut her own throat. She had absolutely nothing to lose by waiting to deliver the baby to get whatever she wanted. It was only a few weeks away. He had everything to lost by her delivering the baby.

And we already know he burned the bodies and had a plan to flee, and was even calculating enough to have his wife give him a 4 hour head start before delivering the first letter to the police. And she didn't die from a cut throat, but from a blow to the head that wasn't consistant with a fall.

Maybe the real problem here is that too much info gets released to the public by the media long before the trial. But this is good for the defendant too becuase he has a lot of time in which to think of how all of this could have happened right before his very eyes without him bearing any real guilt.

Anonymous said...

This has been a good discussion with all of you--and Leah, I've really appreciated the passion behind your posts.

Vanessa--(if you're still here), I've been thinking about something in this realm, that your personal experience illustrates so perfectly; what about the fact that once an individual is accused of a crime, they are granted the "right to remain silent", yet that same "right" doesn't apply to anyone else involved in a case. Were you not jailed for attempting to exercise this very right?

I've also testified in court (for the prosecution), and never felt that I had a right to remain silent. In fact, I felt every personal area of my life examined, while the defendant seemed to be coddled and carefully protected.

Vanessa Leggett said...

A. - A good question. I will try to explain.

The right I invoked is one that belongs to all Americans: The 1st Amdt right to a free and independent press. The gov't held me for not revealing confidential source material. Had I done so, I would have violated confidentiality agreements with sources. Betraying their confidence could have a "chilling effect" on sources talking to journalists in general. If word spreads that the gov't is squeezing journalists for info, and reporters are revealing sources, then the free flow of info to the public is "chilled." If journalists cannot promise sources confidentiality, whistleblowers and others with much to lose would rightly think twice before talking to the press for fear the gov't would intervene and blow the source's cover. Then the public suffers.

The "right to remain silent" is part of the Miranda warning, which reminds the accused of his rights under the Constitution. This civil liberty is rooted in the 5th Amdt right against self-incrimination. The 5th is a right afforded criminal suspects. I was held in CIVIL contempt, which means I was never charged with a crime.

The 5th is a right against SELF-incrimination, not source incrimination. It only protects those who do not want to say something that could incriminate them personally.

Journalists cannot invoke the 5th Amdt. to protect sources or anyone but themselves--should they be charged with or suspected of a crime.

I hope that makes sense. It was a good question. Thanks.

Vanessa Leggett said...

A. wrote

"I've also testified in court (for the prosecution), and never felt that I had a right to remain silent. In fact, I felt every personal area of my life examined, while the defendant seemed to be coddled and carefully protected."

I regret this happened to you. I find it particularly disturbing in sexual assault cases. The criminal only sits back and relaxes if he has no prior offenses and is not convicted. Once found guilty, his baggage can be brought in for the jury to weigh. As difficult as it is for a witness or victim to be grilled under such circumstances . . . you must remember that the accused enjoys those rights because out of everyone in the courtroom: witnesses, prosecutors, defense attorneys, jurors, etc., only the defendant is in danger of losing his life or liberty, and that is why only s/he is entitled to those protections.

Anonymous said...

I have enjoyed this discussion as well.

I don't have any problem with the accused having the right to remain silent and the fact that they don't have to incriminate themselves or assist in their own prosecution. I get offended when someone asks me to believe BS when evidence and/or common sense tells a different story.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the response Vanessa.

I generally don't use my personal experiences to make a point. The real issue that I have a problem with is very much the same as Leah, which is a defense attorney advising the public to turn off our common sense and give the assumption of innocence to a person such as Laurean, who's behavior has been beyond hinky, to say the least.

And of course I really do understand why an accused has the right to remain silent. But the process does feel lopsided, if you're on the other side of it.

Yes, give a good and fair defense to every accused individual, but don't petition the public to betray their own instinct and abandon all logic.
It's offensive.

Anonymous said...

I do not believe anyone is suggesting that you betray your own instincts or abandon your logic. You may have certain beliefs and biases, and that is just because you are human. But, in order to judge - I mean, really "judge" an accused - as a juror, you must be able to listen to all the evidence and not come to a decision until you have heard both sides. Of course, we are not on a jury now, and you may say what you wish. My point is - cherish our right to remain silent and our right to be presumed innocent until the evidence has gone through the "filter" of a trial.

Anonymous said...

Katherine, as a defense attorney, what do you think about having a system of "professional" jurors rather than the system we currently enjoy??