Trial by convenience

Damien Echols (left) and Jason Baldwin (right) stood trial together in 1994

Damien Echols (left) and Jason Baldwin (right) stood trial together in 1994

In cases where two or more people are charged with the crime of homicide, the question about whether or not to try the accused together is almost always raised. Theoretically, trying two people for a single crime appears to make sense because it decreases the costs and time associated with multiple trials. This also reduces the trauma experienced by families and friends of the victim when exposed to these trials.

However, the truth of the matter is that combined trials usually contribute to an atmosphere of prejudice against at least one of the defendants. When deciding if this approach is truly responsible, one might ask if it is appropriate to favor efficiency over a defendant’s right to a fair trial. If you are undecided on this issue, perhaps the following cases will help demonstrate why combining trials is an unjust practice.

West Memphis, Arkansas

In the summer of 1993, three teenagers in West Memphis, Arkansas were arrested and charged with the murders of three 8-year-old boys. Two of the defendants – Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols – faced trial together. The defense attorneys argued against a combined trial for several reasons. For starters, Jason’s attorney, Paul Ford, was concerned about the impact negative media coverage of Damien would have on his client. In Mara Levitt’s book, Devil’s Knotshe wrote the attorney “did not want Jason to be painted with the same broad brush as Damien”.

Ford also raised issues pertaining to the contradictory nature of some of the evidence. For example, one of the witnesses for the prosecution stated she had observed Damien on a service road in the general area where the three boys were found. However, her eyewitness account did not include Jason. This was problematic because the prosecution based their case on the claim that Jason, Damien, and another teen by the name of Jessie Misskelley, were together when the three boys were murdered.

The presiding judge, David Burnett, decided against two separate trials for Jason and Damien. His reasoning was that combining the trials was a matter of “judicial economy“. He also added that he did not feel that a joint trial would jeopardize either of the teenagers’ right to a fair trial.

The jury on that particular trial was advised to consider Jason and Damien separately in terms of their alleged involvement in the murders, but we will never know if the jury was truly able to do that. Based on the case files made publicly available, a number of people provided information to the police that directly contradicted the prosecution’s contention that Jason and Damien were together the evening the murders occurred. Providing proof in the form of alibi or eyewitness accounts that the two were separated would have significantly damaged the state’s case against all three teens. However, in a joint trial this can create confusion and hinder each of the defendants’ defenses.

An unfortunate aspect of Jason’s defense was that witnesses could have provided an alibi for Jason throughout the evening of May 5th, but they were never called to the stand. Jason’s defense rested after calling a single witness: Charles Linch. It is fair to conclude that a separate trial, combined with a more zealous defense on Jason’s behalf, might have resulted in a completely different outcome for Jason.

With that said, the three teens accused of the murders were subsequently convicted in two trials. Jessie received his trial first. Jason and Damien’s trial came second. Over the course of 18 years, a time-consuming and expensive legal battle has taken place in the appellate courts to acquire freedom for the three convicted. DNA testing has helped to support Jason, Jessie, and Damien’s claim of innocence.

In August of 2011, the three who had became known as the “West Memphis Three” were released from prison after entering an Alford Plea. Such a plea does not require an admission of guilt. Instead, it depends upon the person’s willingness to acknowledge the prosecution’s ability to meet its burden of proof in court. The precedent for this plea arrangement stems from the Supreme Court case North Carolina v. Alford.

The West Memphis Three are now free, but at what cost?

Louisville, Kentucky

Josh Young (far left) could receive a joint trial with his accuser, Josh Gouker (far right)

Josh Young (far left) could receive a joint trial with his former accuser, Josh Gouker (far right)

Josh Young is now 17-years-old. He was only 15 when his stepbrother, Trey Zwicker, was murdered in May of 2011. The police arrested Josh in connection with the crime after his father fled the state with the teen. At the time it appeared as though detectives considered Josh’s father, Josh Gouker, a suspect in the case.

Gouker and his son were arrested in Alabama in June of 2011 on gun charges. Gouker was also held on a kidnapping charge in relation to a woman who claimed he forced her to drive at gunpoint. He was released from jail in the state of Alabama during the month of September, but was remanded back into custody by October.

During this time period, Gouker contacted the detectives investigating Trey’s murder. He told them that his son had committed the crime and that he had not known about Josh’s involvement until after. His claims contradicted statements he made previously. In an attempt to prove he was telling the truth to police, Gouker orchestrated phone calls to several family members and friends. Though he tried to get various people to corroborate his claim that Josh was the perpetrator, some of conversations that took place presented clear red flags that Gouker was trying to divert suspicion off of himself by casting it onto his own son.

Eventually Gouker admitted that he had murdered Trey on his own, but by then the damage was done. Now the younger and elder Josh both stand accused of the murder. Moreover, the prosecution wants to try the two together. This, despite Josh’s defense attorney’s claim that he “plans to introduce 20 new factual items that will show the teen did not kill Zwicker, 14, by beating him with a baseball bat.”

Josh Young’s defense attorneys want him tried separately from his father. Trying Josh beside his father presents a number of hurdles for the defense, including the potential for Gouker to influence or attempt to manipulate witnesses for Josh’s defense. Discovery evidence demonstrates he has done this in the past and so there is reasonable concern he may do it again.

A combined trial would also force Josh to stand trial next to his accuser. Instead of having the opportunity to challenge his accuser in court in the traditional sense, he runs the risk of being perceived negatively when the jury learns more about Gouker. This is a similar dilemma to the one mentioned previously in which Jason Baldwin’s defense attorneys worried that he would be impacted by the evidence presented against Damien – even though much of it had nothing to do with Jason.

Gouker’s defense wants a separate trial as well.

Judge Barry Willett is expected to make a decision about trying Josh and his father separately or together on March 22. Hopefully the judge will preserve each defendants’ right to a fair trial. Only time will tell.

Injustices in Indiana

Ellen Page played Slyvia Likens in "American Crime" - a girl tortured and murdered by neighborhood children

Ellen Page played Sylvia Likens in “An American Crime” – a girl tortured and murdered by her caretaker and neighborhood children. Copyrighted and all rights reserved – in compliance with Fair Use or educational/research purposes

Indiana is a dangerous state for adolescents and teenagers. The consequences for poor decision making, on the part of minors, are severe. Most recently we got a glimpse into the inner workings of the system when a group of teenagers were arrested for felony murder in Indiana after entering a man’s home. They did not commit a murder. They did not even plan a murder. They picked a home to enter based on the belief no one was even home. However, because the homeowner pulled a gun on the teenagers and killed one of them the prosecutor feels he must set an example.

There is no question that making a choice to break into a home is a bad one. No one – including the family of one of the boy’s, Blake Layman – would argue that a consequence is not warranted. The consequence should reflect the crime committed though, right? It should not be based on the crime manifested as a result of a prosecutor perverting one of the best examples of bad law in existence.

The prosecutor clearly feels he must set an example though. The felony murder rule almost always seems as though it is intended to set an example. We live in a society that quickly forgets the harsh lessons learned by others, but we like to establish precedents. The more extreme, the better.

That is, until that precedent involves someone we love.

You don’t necessarily have to make a bad decision to find yourself facing serious time in prison. People just need to think you did – namely a prosecutor and a jury. In the state of Indiana age has seemed, prior to today, insignificant.

How many times have you heard the mantra “adult time for an adult crime” or “if a child can make an adult decision they should be tried as an adult”? On its face it almost sounds reasonable, but these are fallacies.

First off, there is no such thing as an adult decision. One cannot logically say that a child made an adult decision. The main reason it is illogical to describe a decision in the above way is because it is a scientific fact that the brain of an adolescent, teenager, and even young adult is not fully mature. The process of brain maturation is a gradual one. Areas in the brain critical for making intelligent decisions appear to be the last to completely develop. For example, children do not have the same degree of impulse control, ability to fully understand consequences, or emotional control as adults.

If children could drive...

If children could drive…

As a society we know this. We don’t let young children drive vehicles. We don’t allow adolescent girls to make the decision to get married. Though there are some parents who allow their children to drink alcohol in the privacy of their home, it isn’t legal and as a society we allegedly do not condone it. There is a laundry list of decisions we do not allow children to make and these are only a few examples.

Individually most people realize there is a difference between children and adults, even if these people are the first to post a disparaging comment on a news story about the latest tragedy perpetrated by a young teenager. “Fry ’em!” is one I see a lot. However, these people probably wouldn’t hand their car keys to a twelve year old boy and ask him to go to the store and buy a six pack of beer. Not just because it is illegal to do it, but because they would likely have grave concerns about whether he would even make it to the store without causing an accident.

They also probably wouldn’t tell their fourteen year old daughter that it is okay to quit school and marry a 20-year-old boy she met on the Internet. One reason is because most parents wouldn’t trust their child to make a decision of that magnitude. Parents have a job, which is to protect their child or children from others who may harm them. Often the responsibility of a parent is to guide the child when it comes to making decisions, protecting the child from his or her own self.

Some believe the act of committing murder – under any circumstance – is different than other kinds of decisions. Again, this is illogical. The same adolescent brain that society has deemed incapable of making decisions such as drinking alcohol, voting, gambling, and myriad other activities is responsible for making the decision to kill. A person’s brain does not magically mature moments before this kind of decision is made. A child does not automatically transform into an adult just because he or she is waived into the adult court either.

And yet that is exactly how the system works in some states. A look into Indiana’s past reveals a state that is inconsistent in its treatment of juveniles as well as adults. However, the state was not always as hard on teenagers as it is now. Take the story of Sylvia Likens. Sylvia was left in the care of the Baniszewski family a few months before she died in 1965. The 16-year-old was tortured and brutalized in more ways than one before she finally succumbed to her fate.

The manner of her death is shocking, but the circumstances surrounding it are almost unfathomable. The woman charged with her care, Gertrude Baniszewski, not only inflicted severe abuse on the teenager, but encouraged her own children and other kids in the neighborhood (one as young as ten) to do the same. Astonishingly, adults who came in and out of the home saw Sylvia’s condition but did nothing to help her.

Gertrude had seven children of her own. Paula was 17, John was 12, Stephanie was 15, Marie was 11, Shirley was 10, and the twins were 18 months. John was convicted of manslaughter – sentenced to serve a penalty of two-to-21 years. He was released after two years. Paula was convicted of second-degree murder. Two neighborhood boys named Richard Hobbs and Coy Hubbard, were also convicted of manslaughter. They were released after two years as well.

Though Gertrude was sentenced to life in prison, she and her daughter eventually received new trials. Twenty years after Sylvia’s murder, Gertrude was released on parole. She changed her name and left the state. In 1990, she died as a result of lung cancer. Her eldest daughter Paula took a plea of voluntary manslaughter and was released after serving two years.

The story was immortalized in the 2007 film An American Crime, starring Ellen Page and Catherine Keener.

What a difference a few decades make, right? In 1966, a child of 12 in Indiana faced a sentence of 2-to-21 years for murder.

It is hard to know what the future holds for Anthony who resides at Wabash, or 16-year-old Blake who awaits his trial for felony murder while housed currently at the county jail among adult offenders. Just prior to his arrest, Blake was a freshman in high school and working 30 hours each week at Wendy’s. He also helped his mother care for his younger sister who has suffered from a brain tumor since she was very young. In a very short span of time Blake’s life changed completely. Now he faces the possibility of a lifetime in prison.

The frightening lesson to take away from this is that if you live in Indiana (or states who treat juveniles similarly) you or someone you know could find themselves in this type of situation. Blake and Anthony could have been anyone’s children. They are someone’s children. As resistant as one may be to the idea that something like this could happen to them, it is important to accept that possibility because the justice system is broken and anyone may become its victim.

This is American society at its core. This is how we respond to complex social problems such as juvenile crime. These sentences will not reduce the amount of crime in this country because they are not the cause. Forcing children to become adults in a legal sense when we scoff at the idea of doing so in other aspects of life is absurd.

Enough said.