Last week I was talking to a friend of mine who is a Superior Court Judge in Spokane. We have known each other for 15 years and frequently talk about situations that we face and sometimes exchange stories.
He told me he presided over a jury trial in which the evidence was clear that the defendant committed a very serious assault just a few months after his release from prison after completing a 20-year sentence for a pair of armed robberies. His crime demonstrated that he was not a rational thinker. He broke into a house with a weapon and thereby terrorized the woman and child inside. All because someone told him Sasquatch was inside and had taken a family hostage. Law enforcement nearly had to shoot him when they took him into custody. He was examined and found competent to stand trial and he did. A jury convicted him.
After the trial, some jurors asked to talk with the judge, so he spoke to them. They asked about the defendant’s prior record. The judge told them about the serious nature of his criminal past and explained that the rules of evidence do not allow jurors to know about a defendant’s prior record. He explained that it was because they might find him guilty based partly on the fact that he had done other bad things in the past.
One of the jurors said that was nuts. The juror said that was like being asked to hire a person without being able to see a résumé and or check references, but base the entire decision on what was said in the interview. The juror said that they were being asked to make a decision but were not given enough information so they could determine what was right to believe. The juror did not understand how this could be. The judge tried to explain but the juror was not satisfied. The juror said the system made the jury decide based on who was the best liar. He was disgusted with the process.
In Washington, the evidence rules do not let jurors know about a defendant’s criminal record except in very limited and special circumstances. This is a choice Washington courts have made, not the people. That is not true in all other states. In some states, the jury can be told about the past convictions of any person who testifies; either witness or defendant. Some states justify this by saying that juries need to know what a witness has been guilty of in the past so the jury can judge whether or not they should be believed.
There is an old saying, “hang em’ high, but use a clean rope.” I agree we should use a clean rope and Washington’s is extremely clean, but we do need to hang ‘em. (disclaimer) The preceding statement is not to be taken literally as to the manner of holding persons accountable, but merely to the existence of the need to.
-Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen