I hear some weird stuff. A lot of weird stuff. I don’t only hear it. I say it. It’s part of what we do. As lawyers who weren’t there when the “crime” happens, we don’t know the “truth”. We only know what facts we’re given. It’s the same for prosecutors. And the cops.
We take the weird facts and try to tell a story that makes sense. You know what kind of story you get when you start with weird facts? A weird one.
I did a trial in early 2011 where my client’s DNA was on a beer can found inside a building that had been burglarized. The full factual picture is way more involved than what I can explain here. Needless to say, that was the strongest/only physical evidence actually placing my client at the scene. After the trial, another lawyer asked me what I came up with for a closing argument. It was simple- another man (one who had decided to become a witness for the state) managed to come in possession of my client’s garbage (he was found in a truck full of it). That other guy was using my client’s old beer can as a cup from which to sip vodka, while he acted as a lookout at the scene of the crime. And he left the can there because he was stupid (I couldn’t help saying that part… and it made sense).
The other attorney I was telling this to told me that my theory was horrible. That may very well be. I can only play the hand I’m dealt. The jury heard all the evidence (not just my synopsis of the closing argument), and they agreed with me. That happens when the weird theory is supported by the weird facts.
Prosecutors come up with some of the worst stuff… especially if they are being too pig-headed to be objective. Theories that are weird but not based on weird facts tend to creep everybody out. Don’t believe me? Read about the Lake County Prosecutor whom the Sheriff wants fired. When DNA found inside a dead, 11 year old girl turned out to NOT be the DNA of his prime suspect, the prosecutor didn’t miss a beat. Instead, he decided that the 11 year old girl may have been sexually active, but the man who somehow “placed” his DNA inside her didn’t kill her. Instead, some guy whose DNA is not inside her did the killing. Riiiiiiiiiiiiight. Makes perfect sense.
One of my favorite documentaries is The Staircase Murder. It documents the defense efforts before and during the murder case of Michael Peterson. Peterson was a well-known author in North Carolina at the time his wife was found dead on their staircase. The documentarygood look at what sort of preparation really, really rich people get for their murder trials. One of my favorite things about it is that you really can’t be sure of what happened. You get to see how the trial played out. You get to here the prosecution’s theory- that the victim was bludgeoned with a fireplace poker. You get to see defense theories- that she, perhaps, fell. While everybody I’ve talked to who has watched it has a “gut” feeling, nobody is ever really 100% convinced either way.
My gut reaction the first time I watched it was that the victim was attacked but not by Peterson. Beyond that, I had no idea. There was just too much that didn’t add up. Too many things didn’t make sense. That case took place in 2003. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but the verdict did not go the way of the defense. I wasn’t shocked by the outcome, it’s just not the way I would have gone.
8 years later, the case is back in the news. He has been granted a new trial.
The exciting part for those of us who like the weirdness in criminal law isn’t that we get to go through the case again. It’s the defense theory that looks likely at the new trial: the victim was attacked by an owl. Yes. An owl.
I’m with you. That’s horrible. Having seen the documentary and read up on the theory, though, it makes sense. How else did an owl feather end up at the scene of the crime? Weird facts lead to weird theories, and this weird one just may make sense. Check the movie out and then keep an eye on this case. it should be fun.