My Story

Reasonable Doubt

Why Reporters Don’t Sit On Juries

By James Donahue

In my years as a police and court news reporter I was only called once for jury duty because I knew too much about just about any case that went before a judge. Even civil cases often caught my attention.

When I was working in South Haven, I was corralled one day to make up a sixth member of a municipal court jury panel in the old municipal court that operated then. I just happened to be in City Hall and they asked me to fill in. It was a traffic case. I knew nothing about it and did not know the defendant, so I agreed. I thought it would be an interesting experience. I was not disappointed.

The case was tried before a municipal judge by a city attorney. Another local lawyer argued the defense.

The defendant was a middle-aged man who we as jurors learned had been apprehended by the South Haven Police for something like failing to have his vehicle under control. Details of just why he was stopped, handcuffed and brought to the city jail were not made known to us throughout the trial. He was charged with an infraction of the driving code but the city attorney failed, at least in my mind, to provide any evidence that the man had his vehicle out of control when it struck some object along the road. The defense lawyer did a good job of putting doubt of any guilt in my mind.

Throughout the trail, however, I sensed an air of secrecy. There was something both lawyers were going out of their way not to let the jury know about.

When it was time for the jury to go off into a little room and decide the case, I found that all five of the other jurors were in agreement that the man should be found guilty. I had heard so many cases by then that I had reasonable doubt and told them so. I also explained why. I was sure that we had not been given enough evidence to convict this man of any wrongdoing.

We debated the case for some time and in the end, I convinced the other jurors that we had not been given enough evidence. We were left with “reasonable doubt.”

At one point we called on the bailiff to ask the court for the answer to a basic question, which was, as I remember it, why the police charged the man the way they did. We asked for more information. The answer was that we had to decide the case on the information we had.

That cinched it for me. I could not find the man guilty of anything. The other jurors finally agreed with me. We declared him innocent.

The next morning when I stopped at the City Police Station on my morning rounds, the police chief was waiting for me. He said he understood that I was on the jury that found this man innocent the previous day. I told him that I was. He asked why we found him innocent and I explained the case as it was presented to us, and why we had reasonable doubt.

 “Didn’t they tell you this guy was so drunk he couldn’t stand up?” the chief asked. He said the vehicle the man was driving left the road and collided with something. I think I was either a fence or a post.

I never understood why this information was never mentioned in the trial, or why the defendant wasn’t charged with drunken driving instead of the lesser charge. I have watched many trails since that date, and know that jurors are often prevented from hearing critical facts they need so they can make fair decisions on a defendant’s guilt or innocence.

That seems to be among the tricks lawyers play during trials.

The moral of this story is that newspaper reporters, and especially reporters that have covered a lot of court cases, probably should not be allowed to sit on juries. If the country ever goes to professional jurors, however, we all would be highly qualified.