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Nathan Newman on February 22, 2006 - 11:02am
Or if a tree falls in a forest and a jury isn't told, does the tree legally exist? More or less, this is the issue before the US Supreme Court in a case deciding whether state law can require judges to hide evidence from juries. In South Carolina, state law generally prohibits defense lawyers from presenting evidence that someone other than the accused committed the crime in question. The details of the case show the problem:
When Bobby Lee Holmes stood trial for the rape and murder of an elderly woman in York, S.C., his defense was that someone else committed the crime. But the jury that sentenced Mr. Holmes to death never heard any of it. The trial judge barred Holmes's lawyer from presenting evidence that someone else killed the woman and later confessed to it.Not only was a confession that could exonerate the defendant excluded from evidence, but the state prosecutor actually told the jury that Holmes had to be the murderer since no evidence to the contrary had been presented. So the judges' gag order on the defense -- which the jury had no knowledge of -- was used as evidence of guilt by silent admission. Talk about Catch-22. The Supreme Court case is about the specific right to receive a fair trial, but the problem of judges excluding evidence is true not only in criminal trials but in civil trials as well. Plaintiffs suing corporations often lose the case before the trial begins when a judge excludes their experts from testifying or presenting other evidence. Defenders of such rules complain about allowing "junk science" into the courtroom, but the question is who gets to decide what's "junk" or "fair" evidence? The point of having a jury is to have twelve separate individuals evaluate what evidence is credible and what is not. If judges get to pick and choose which facts are true ahead of time, why bother with a jury in the first place? And with judicial appointments and elections so influenced by corporate political interests, it's becoming a national scandal that plaintiffs and defendants across the country de facto lose their right to a fair trial based on the whims of judges given their positions by these special interests.