Thursday, July 07, 2005

People v. Dickens (Cal. Ct. App. - July 5, 2005)

Here's something you don't see every day: a trial court that is sufficiently uncertain about the guilty verdict in a criminal case that it grants a new trial, and the Court of Appeal affirms. Pretty darn unusual.

We do something like this all the time in civil cases, of course: grant a new trial because the verdict is against the weight of the evidence. (Well, admittedly, even in civil cases this doesn't happen "all the time," but it's still something that occurs with some regularity.) But it's a much more unusual -- and somewhat weird -- result in criminal cases because we're simultaneously much more deferential to the jury's verdict but concerned that only guilty people be convicted. So usually courts either just let the jury's verdict stand, if the evidence was sufficient to support it, or dismiss the charges if the evidence is inadequate. A new trial order is a much rarer result.

But this seems a quite plausible case in which a new trial order might be the most equitable result, and in any event, I definitely agree with Justice McKinster that the decision should be affirmed. (Indeed, I thought it somewhat stinky of the Riverside DA's office to argue to the contrary.) The evidence that the crime here was really premeditated was incredibly low; indeed, I thought -- as did the trial court -- that it was possible that the evidence was legally insufficient on this point. Given this fact, even if the charge isn't dismissed, it seems more than fair for the court to grant a new trial. Maybe if a second jury agrees with the first it'll persuade the judge that other minds are wiser than hers and hence that the conviction should be affirmed. But I don't at all see the need for the judge to simply say "Whatever the first jury says, goes" even if she's exceptionally dubious about the propriety of such a result. A new trial seems like a pretty good -- and just -- response.

So good job Justice McKinster. It's a good opinion, reaches a good result, and contains pretty good analysis of the arguably competing authorities to the contrary, which do indeed appear to take -- unjustifiably, in my view -- a somewhat more dubious view of new trial orders in criminal cases. And good job Judge Waters, of the Riverside County Superior Court, for not taking the easy way out and simply letting a dubious conviction stand. Sure, some will argue that she should have dismissed the charges outright. Some others will undoubtedly argue that she should have let the conviction stand. Her decision to grant a new trial may not entirely please anyone. But perhaps that's the reaction often engendered by reasonable and fair resolutions.

Anyway, my reaction is a positive one. So good job everyone.