Directed verdict of acquittal in Charleston murder trial

There is no one in our profession that I admire more than public defenders who fight for their clients, who go the extra mile, who don’t back down, who love what they do and, although they could easily be making a comfortable living in private practice, continue to represent indigent clients by choice and not by necessity.  Beattie Butler at the Ninth Circuit public defender’s office is one of those.

Another of Butler’s clients was acquitted of murder last week in Charleston, S.C., after spending two years in prison for defending himself at a nightclub in 2010.  Not only was his client acquitted of murder based on self defense, which was conclusively proven by the witnesses, but the state did not present sufficient evidence for the case to go the jury at the end of the trial, resulting in a directed verdict of acquittal by the Court.

The Ninth Circuit Solicitor, in a statement to the press, says that the defense wasted everyone’s time – “Had we known the information presented in court, we would have made the same decision that the judge made, only much sooner,” Wilson said.  Beattie pointed out in response that the prosecutors had statements from witnesses that supported the defendant’s claim of self defense, but they did not call those witnesses.

“The two years of Winslow’s life that were wasted highlight the need for change in criminal rules, according to Wilson.”  Wilson is saying that the rules should require the defense to provide more information to the prosecution in advance of trial – I agree that it highlights the need for change; the fact that an innocent defendant sits in jail for 2 years while the prosecutor has information that would exonerate the defendant is on no-one but the prosecutor.  Until the case comes to trial, no one has the power to dismiss the charges and release a person except the prosecutor.  The prosecutor is the only party responsible for bringing the case to trial, and responsible for the delay in bringing a case to trial.  It does highlight the need for a change – it illustrates why prosecutor control of the docket is unfair.

It also raises another point – the defense is required to turn over evidence that it intends to present at trial (under Rule 5, if the defense requests discovery they are then subject to reciprocal discovery requirements), but if the defense has additional witnesses or impeachment evidence should the defense bring them to the prosecutor’s attention?  If the defense does, will the prosecutor dismiss the case and admit they were wrong?  More likely, the effect is that it provides an opportunity for investigators to interrogate the witnesses, threaten the witnesses with prosecution if they testify or if they do not change their testimony, and find rebuttal witnesses.

Whether to trust a prosecutor to dismiss a case in the interest of justice based on exculpatory evidence uncovered by the defense is a judgment call that will depend on the strength of the evidence, the politics involved in a particular case, who the prosecutor is and what that prosecutor’s (or their office) track record is in prior cases.  Also, what does it say about the Ninth Circuit Solicitor’s Office and the Ninth Circuit Public Defender’s Office when the public defender does a better job investigating than the Solicitor and Sheriff’s office combined?

 

3 Responses to “Directed verdict of acquittal in Charleston murder trial

  • Great post! All of have tales of prosecutors we cannot trust. I can remember a trial I did where the prosecutor sent agents to knock on the door of everyone in the block where my client lived a week before trial and sure intimidated them from testifying for me. But to their credit, nobody made up stuff the agents wanted to hear. The only one not intimidated was my client’s neighbor who happened to be a police officer. After we got a new trial, because the government misrepresented as convictions, charges that were dismissed, against one of my witnesses, which had not been disclosed to me, guess what happened? The prosecutor wrote a letter to the police questioning why the policeman testified as a defense witness, and he was called in to internal affairs to be questioned. I called this to the attention of the federal judge who reamed the prosecutor out in chambers, but nothing else. However, we won the retrial with a not guilty. But that took the bloom off the rose for me on disclosing witnesses to the prosecutor in advance of trial. Some of them just don’t get “fair.”

  • I think most defense lawyers learn early on not to lay out their case in the naive hope that it will be dismissed, although there are particular times and particular prosecutors when it does make sense.

  • Lyle jones
    6 years ago

    Great article. I fall firmly into the Don’t Tip Your Hand to the Prosecutor camp. It’s a mistake I’ll never again. Congratulations to the Public Defender.

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