Two years ago, Barajas and his two young sons were pushing the family’s stricken pickup truck along the road near their Houston-area home when 20-year-old Jose Banda, definitely drunk, possibly stoned, and reportedly an avid gang-banger, ran his car into the pickup, killing Barajas’ sons.
The way prosecutors tell it, Barajas immediately retrieved a pistol from his house and shot Banda in the head. Prosecutors charged Barajas with murder. The case against him wasn’t precisely a slam-dunk, but there was some physical and lots of circumstantial evidence pointing to his guilt, and there was every reason to expect a speedy and resounding conviction. Certainly American juries have convicted fellow citizens on far, far less.
On Aug. 27 of this year, Barajas was acquitted of the murder charge by a jury of his peers. Many people, most of them in legal professions, denounced the verdict as unjust. They said juror sympathy trumped the facts. They said a murderer is walking around free. They say the decision heralds a bloody “open-season” on those suspected of as-yet un-adjudicated crimes. Some, determined to correct what they consider a grave miscarriage of justice, even called for Barajas to be tried again on federal civil-rights charges, double jeopardy be damned.
Me? I’m of two minds.
On one hand, I don’t think people should be encouraged to take the law into their own hands, or be free to kill those who’ve wronged them as they see fit. Our judicial system, for all its faults, is a lot better than folks running around settling their beefs by deadly force, which is simply vigilantism, which is another name for anarchy.
I’m against anarchy.
On the other, I consider the Barajas verdict a signal victory for the jury system. In fact, I believe Barajas’ acquittal is an excellent example of a jury acting as the system’s designers intended. Prosecutors in the case archly castigated the jury for allowing “sympathy” to trump “facts.” It’s quite possible, even probable, they did exactly that.
And that’s quite all right.
A jury represents the one instance, codified in the Constitution and endlessly supported by precedent, when citizens are allowed – no, required – to take the law into their own hands. In the courtroom, the jury is the law.
Judge’s tend to disagree. They like to “instruct” the jury on how to do its job, tell the jurors what evidence they should and should not consider, how they should think about that evidence, how they should deliberate, and how they should arrive at their verdict. Judges like juries to toe the tight judicial line they draw for them.
Prosecutors tend to disagree. Prosecutors like jurors to accept the evidence as they provide it, and they aren’t above telling them in no uncertain terms how they “must” decide. They provide juries with check-lists detailing the “elements” of the case, and flatly state that, if each element has been proven, they have no legal recourse but to convict.
Thing is, juries have all kinds of legal recourse. Judges aren’t the kings of the courtroom, regardless of what they think. And provided individual jurors don’t take bribes, threaten other jurors, or defecate in the jury box, prosecutors have very little legal authority over jurors. In the courtroom, the jury is the law.
I’m reminded of a case I saw on TV once. An 18-year-old boy fell in love with a 13-year-old girl. They were, by all accounts, a typical teenaged couple, holding hands and mooning, all hearts and flowers, sickening, really. The girl’s mother didn’t object. She recognized that the boy and her daughter, the calendar notwithstanding, were psychologically and emotionally simpatico. The kids’ friends and adult acquaintances took it in stride, and for the same reason. Then the girl got pregnant. Nobody who knew them minded that, under state law, the union was mathematically proscribed.
The boy took a job, determined to step up and provide for his girlfriend and their coming child like a man. They faced many challenges ahead, and possibly their relationship would not survive those challenges, but they had the support of their families, the strength of young love, and they were determined to try.
When the local prosecutor got wind the affair, he charged the boy with statutory rape. If convicted, the lad was looking at a minimum two year prison hitch and a lifetime sex-offender brand. Following a short trial, the DA sent the juror off to deliberations with a very short list of elements.
1.) Is the boy 18? No denying it.
2.) Is the girl 13? Proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
3.) If you answered “yes” to numbers 1 and 2, you must convict.
The jury deliberated far longer than should have been necessary, than came back with a guilty verdict. The boy was hauled away to prison, the girl shuffled back to her mother’s house to join the rolls of unwed teens living on the public purse and raising a child without a father. A reporter talked to the jurors after the trial. Said the foreman; “None of us wanted to convict him. We just didn’t have a choice.”
My head very nearly exploded.
I yelled at the TV.
“If you didn’t want to convict him, why the hell did you?”
What those jurors apparently didn’t understand, and what neither the judge, nor the prosecutor, nor even the defense attorney (being professionally invested in the primacy of the legal classes) was about to tell them, is that nobody can make a jury do anything it doesn’t want to do. In the courtroom, the jury is the law.
The function of a jury is not to simply rubber-stamp investigators’ findings and the state’s conclusions, however compelling, or to slavishly adhere to the letter of the law and avoid all contemplation of its spirit. If that were the case, in most cases there’d be no need for juries. Juries weren’t invented by accident. They exist because, despite the assurances of every prosecutor who ever lived, the state enjoys a considerable advantage in the courtroom. Juries balance the government’s power with the power of the governed, and temper dry legal principles with humanity. The jury’s job, first and foremost, is to administer justice as it is understood by the common citizen.
A responsible jury can decide whether or not the law is being applied as intended. It can decide if punishment is warranted in a given case, regardless of guilt. A jury can and should decide what outcome will best serve the community’s interests, and what verdict will best satisfy justice. There can be, after all, a distinct difference between what is legal and what is just. Alas, all too often juries merely decide a person’s fate based on carefully tailored criteria hand-fed them by people adept at using the system to advance their own careers.
In the case of the ill-fated Romeo, it’s nothing short of a tragedy that not one of a dozen solid citizens appreciated their proper role, or mustered the courage to say “Hold the phone!”
“This is not some middle-aged creep exposing himself to school children. This awkward teen romance is not what these laws were crafted to address.
“I, for one, will never vote to send this harmless sad-sack to prison and doom him to a life of constant suspicion and loathing; to deprive his girlfriend of the emotional and financial support that he is willing to provide and consign her into the unloving hands of social welfare agencies; to deprive his child of a father, an example, a loving guide and nurturing presence, and surrender it to the state’s fickle form of fatherhood.
“I see no malice in his actions, no terrible wrong done by them, and no conceivable benefit to this community by his conviction. I do see, however, any number of very great wrongs that will surely result from his imprisonment, and I simply won’t be party to it.”
Nobody said that, of course. The jury followed its orders and put the boy away, and his community’s been paying for it in ways large and small ever since.
Which brings me back to David Barajas.
I don’t know why they let him off the hook. But I’d like to think they did it because it was the right thing to do.
Barajas shouldn’t have shot Banda in the head, if that’s what he did, but if ever a man had cause to seek violent personal retribution it was David Barajas. And while he may have been denied the legal protections afforded all citizens by due process, if ever a person deserved immediate and summary justice it was Jose Banda.
I like to think the jury concluded that society lost little with Banda’s death, and that it would surely lose a great deal by the incarceration of Barajas. I like to think those jurors realized that Barajas’ case fell outside the normal definitions of criminal murder, and that the laws the prosecutor sought to apply against him were simply inadequate to address the circumstances. I like to think they decided among themselves that enough damage was done, and that neither the judge, nor the prosecutor, nor the indifferent letter of the law would compel them to add to the tragedy.
I like to think David Barajas’ jury did its job.