Thoughts On Trials That I Covered And The Impeachment

My first job after college was at a small twice weekly paper.  My beat was the police department, sheriff’s department, fire department, ambulance service, courthouse, county offices, trials, and county commission.  It was a great way to learn about local government and how things work.

I covered a murder trial with the death penalty and several other cases during my time there.  And, I would regularly visit judges to understand what was being discussed and to see the behind the scenes of them.   It was often off the record and a great way to understand items that I didn’t.  I trusted them and they trusted me.  What a concept!

What has been happening during the entire impeachment process is so very different than what I remember.  I am not an attorney but a journalist who has covered trials in a county courthouse.  So, a lot of differences are expected but I wanted to share some things that I remember from those days.  (Both images are from Power Point clip art.)

First of all, people are usually indicted for a crime when the entire grand jury has a vote of 2/3 or 3/4 depending on that jury’s rules.  Also, when people are charged with a crime, they generally take it seriously, try to arrange bail if that is offered and affordable, and don’t mock the officers who are there to arrest them or serve them with a subpoena.  And most importantly, if they don’t take it seriously and respect those doing their jobs, there are consequences.

Next, jury members are instructed to be impartial and are often excused if they aren’t, they are to listen to the facts, take notes, and pay attention.  They cannot talk to other jurors or get up from the jury box during testimony or opening or closing arguments.  And, the judge is constantly keeping his or her eye on them.  Nor are they allowed to read a book, work on a craft, or leave the room for an interview during the trial.  They also cannot look at articles or broadcasts about their assigned case during its deliberation.

Next, the testimony can take days and everyone has to be there for the entire time – the witnesses (only when they are called), the accused, the lawyers, the judge, the jury, court reporters, bailiffs, and others who work at the courthouse.  The judge is respected and a particular decorum is expected at all times.

The one and only job of a juror during a trial is the case — paying attention, listening to all items allowed in the courtroom, listening very carefully to the judge’s instructions prior to deliberation, and then going into a room to discuss it and finally vote on guilt or innocence.  Sometimes they will ask questions of the judge to clarify a law or something they heard during the deliberation.

In all my time covering trials and court cases, I never saw the accused working hand in hand with the judge and jury.  That just doesn’t happen in the real world.  When you are tried, you have an attorney who works to defend your case, that attorney is in regular contact with the prosecution, and motions are filed and sometimes proof is excluded while other times it is included.  You also don’t tell the jury how to vote or the judge how to do his/her job.

For the cases I covered, the attorneys for the separate sides would often have lunch together or talk between breaks.  They were friends and colleagues and did not treat each other as the enemy.  They were there doing their jobs and knew the line between what they argued in the courtroom and what went on outside of that courtroom.

For the impeachment of our current president, I am quite disappointed that the entire process has been partisan.  The charges of impeachment were approved on party lines.  The vote to have no witnesses was on party lines, and I imagine the final vote will be as well.  And worst of all, one side made up their minds before the trial even started to convict and the other side made up their minds to acquit.

That to me is just so wrong, but I am also seeing it much closer to home with people that I know.  That too is troubling to me.  We no longer want to wait for the entire case to unfold or to hear all of the information.  We judge on whether we already like the person or not and if we are in agreement with them or not.  We often jump to conclusions and then no amount of reason or fact can change our minds.  When we do that, we have one side that says someone can do no wrong and the other side who says someone can do no right.

I just wish that the two extremes could learn to work together again.  In the days of President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neil (as I have mentioned in previous blogs), they would argue and defend their sides but they weren’t hateful about it.  They didn’t call each other morons, incompetent, or the enemy.

They knew that a steady debate was to be expected and welcomed it.  Yet they were also friends or at least were acquaintances.  People such as Senator Ted Kennedy and Senator John McCain were on opposite sides of most issues, but they would try to work together for the good of the country.

I also want to remind all of us that being on the opposite side of an issue doesn’t make someone the enemy.  And, it shouldn’t be causing divisions in families or with friends.  Whatever happened to agreeing to disagree?  I know that there are some issues that may be too big for that and cannot be overcome.  But I am tired of this attitude that every single issue is extreme one way or the other.

I am also tired of hearing our elected officials slam each other all of the time and call each other stupid, our enemy, etc.  I don’t like having to explain every day to my son that that is not an okay way to treat other people.  Instead, we are to respect others and their opinions.  We don’t have to agree with them or even like what they stand for.  But we do have to remember they are entitled to what they think and so are we.

I hope and pray that we can find a way to heal our country, to actually listen to each other’s differences, and to stop calling each other our enemy.  I hope and pray that we can take the time to learn about the other side of an argument.  I hope and pray that we can do better for my son and his generation.  I also hope and pray that we can do better for ourselves.