Recently, Derek was hired on a criminal defense case in Everett involving a serious allegation of domestic violence. The adult client was accused of trying to stab his mother with a long-bladed kitchen knife following an argument. According to the mother, the only reason the client didn’t kill her was because he was stopped by her husband at the last moment. The client denied even touching the knife, let alone trying to kill his own mother.
Under Washington law, there are harsh penalties for being convicted of assault with a deadly weapon. But the act of using a deadly weapon can also lead to additional, and severe, punishment on top of the criminal charge. A deadly weapon can be practically anything that is readily capable of causing substantial harm or death to another person. Whether something is a deadly weapon depends on the intent of the user and the circumstances in which the object was used. We’ve seen cases where objects like screwdrivers, crowbars, automobiles, hedge clippers and other everyday items were transformed into deadly weapons because of how they were used.
Every kitchen has knives, so every household has a potentially deadly weapon. What happens when someone accuses another of using an item we all have as a weapon in our homes? How can you defend against such a case?
The first thing Derek did was to demand that the knife, which was recovered in the case, be tested for fingerprints. This is a relatively low-risk strategy: if the knife comes back with the client’s fingerprints, it is not going to equal proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the victim’s allegations are correct (because everyone has a kitchen knife in their home, and those knives are likely have fingerprints of people who live there); but, on the other hand, if there were no fingerprints, that tends to seriously undercut the accusation. Sure, someone can wipe prints off of a knife, but the case for the defense becomes stronger where the government has to argue that the client may have had his fingerprints on the knife, only for those prints to subsequently be lost. It also makes for a natural argument that the police have performed a substandard investigation, which generates doubt as to the persuasiveness of the evidence. So, while sometimes we don’t request such testing be performed, here it was a good approach.
After testing, the client’s fingerprints were nowhere to be found on the knife, which backed up his claim that he hadn’t touched any knife. When we interviewed the complaining witness, her story changed numerous times as to how the alleged attack occurred. She said our client had run over to her with the knife, and that her husband, who was in a totally different room, somehow jumped in front of her and saved her. The story was incredible, at least in the manner she described it. Later, she changed her story to say that the client had slowly walked toward her with the knife by his side. We knew with the lack of physical evidence and the reduced credibility of the witness, that we could win the case.
The biggest problem, in our estimation, was the emotional weight that would be put on a jury when it heard that the case involved a son trying to kill his own mother. Could a jury be trusted to set aside the feelings that such a charge might evoke in their own hearts, and simply decide the case on the strength of the evidence? We had serious concerns over a jury’s ability to do so. There’s no room in a jury trial for the idea of “better safe than sorry.” We didn’t want a jury to err on the side of convicting an innocent man if there was some chance that the mother’s accusations were correct. That’s not how our system is designed to operate.
The petit jury, or jury of 12, is a wonderful hallmark of American justice, but it does have limitations. Juries are composed of civilians (usually), and not lawyers. Juries have no legal training or expertise. They are there only to determine what factual evidence has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt – this is why they are called the “fact-finder.” Conversely, it is the judge of the trial who decides and determines what the is “the law.” At the end of a criminal trial, a jury is told what the law is by the judge, and then must apply the facts (what has been proven to have happened) to the law in order to decide whether a person is guilty or not guilty.
Sometimes a case involves a set of facts so emotionally charged or disturbing, that it is unreasonable to expect a jury will be able to separate their own revulsion from their duties as jurors. In those instances, a jury can sometimes be compelled to find someone guilty just because the jury is outraged, and not on the basis of the evidence. Such verdicts are a miscarriage of justice. Common cases involving these kinds of facts are murder/violent cases, child sex cases, domestic violence cases, or cases involving particularly vulnerable or sympathetic persons.
An experienced criminal defense lawyer is aware of the possibility of this occurring with a jury. At the outset of a serious case that might involve bad facts, a lawyer should advise his client about the option of waiving a jury and proceeding with a bench, or judge, trial. It’s ultimately up to the client only, whether to get rid of a jury and proceed with just a judge.
A judge trial has some advantages over a jury trial. First, the judge is a lawyer and is well-seasoned in criminal procedure, evidence, evaluating witness credibility, and so on. Where a case has bad facts, those can often be neutralized by a judge trial, who can look at the evidence dispassionately and determine whether the government has proven its case.
However, the biggest disadvantage to a judge trial is that a judge is just one person. A jury has 12, who all have to agree in order to find a person guilty. If the judge is convinced, then that is the end of that, the client will be found guilty. And a judge finding a client guilty makes the possibility of asking for a new trial in front of that same judge quite slim. The chances for a successful appeal also are lowered with a judge trial, because oftentimes successful appeals are based on errors occurred with the law given to the jury, or arguments to the jury. Those potential issues are removed when the case proceeds to a judge trial.
In Derek’s case, after being fully advised, the client elected to proceed with a judge trial. Strategically, this was the correct course of action. The judge found the lack of fingerprints on the knife and the numerous instances of changing stories and conflicting testimony from the mother to be fatal to the State’s case. The State could not corroborate the mother’s accusations with any other evidence. The judge found the client not guilty of assault with a deadly weapon. Had he been convicted, the client was facing a sentence of almost 10 years in prison.
Our client gets that decade of his life back because he had a strong and thoughtful defense. A good defense isn’t just about blocking the prosecution; it’s also about deciding the best course of action to take in your defense. It’s about honestly evaluating the evidence in your case, and avoiding the legal landmines that can explode during a jury trial. We are proactive, not just reactive, in our defense wherever possible.
If you are charged with a crime, you should hire a lawyer who has the experience to avoid these pitfalls. Put your trust in an attorney who has actually won cases because of strategic thinking. Give our office a call and we can help.