Can a Jury Alone Decide Guilt?

Prosecutors have too often left it up to juries to sift through evidence of cases against individuals whom they decided were guilty of their crimes without a thorough investigation, says Brooklyn (NY) DA Eric Gonzalez. He adds his office is making sure that never happens again.

Is it easier to take a second look at suspect convictions when crime rates have declined, and the public is no longer clamoring for tough-on-crime strategies from their prosecutors and police?

Brooklyn (NY) District Attorney Eric Gonzalez argues that prosecutors in fact should beware of the opposite problem: when crime rates accelerate, critical evidence that might exonerate a defendant can be sidestepped by DAs who are too eager to satisfy the public’s demand for quick convictions.

Eric Gonzalez

Brooklyn (NY) District Attorney Eric Gonzalez

In a conversation with The Crime Report’s Victoria Mckenzie during last week’s John Jay/Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America, Gonzalez conceded that prosecutors too often left it to jurors to decide on their own how to judge the credibility of both witnesses and evidence without pursuing thorough investigations.

The Crime Report: Since your Conviction Review Unit is handling cases that are decades old, are you able to see whether the decline of jury trials have had an effect on wrongful convictions either way?

Eric Gonzalez: Most of the cases that we’ve overturned have been jury trial cases. We have overturned a plea in one case, where a person was facing deportation, and we found…fabrication. But most of the cases have been jury trials. I’m going to say, and this is controversial in a way, but what I found is— especially in the 1980s and 1990s, when the homicide rate in Brooklyn (left) over 800 people killed, that the volume of cases weren’t very well investigated.

And often if there was probable cause, a lot of these cases would be put before juries with the kind of concept of “let the jury decide.” Make out a legally sufficient prosecution, but let the jury decide.

I think that today we look at these cases a little bit more critically. We don’t abdicate our responsibilities as prosecutors to make sure we have a certain moral certainty of the defendant’s guilt before giving it to the juror to say “you decide.”

That is something I am very critical of, and in some of these cases I think prosecutors could have stopped the prosecution of the case saying they had credibility questions about the witnesses. In the past maybe we allowed jurors to decide credibility, and sort of stepped back from making sure that we believed in their guilt.

TCR: So your review unit is not handling cases where the defendant pled out even if he/she may have been innocent, just to get out of jail etc.

EG: What we’re focusing in on right now are currently cases where the person is still incarcerated. And a lot of these plea cases, especially with low level crime, the person is pleading in order to get out of prison, and they’re moving on with their lives and they don’t have the resources or the organizations like the Innocence Project going back and bringing these petitions.

We have looked at pleas, we do look at pleas, but we’re really focusing our resources on the people currently incarcerated. So I think in a lot of plea cases you don’t have people still in jail.

Victoria Mckenzie is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.