The Court of Public Opinion

Here in New Zealand we have just lived through the trial of a man accused of murdering his brother-in-law in cold blood.  I imagine that murder is rarely in cold blood; surely somebody had to upset the murderer to such an extent that the kill is made.  Or perhaps not.  I cannot imagine what would ever make me take another person’s life.

However, this trial dragged on in the courtroom, on television and in the print media. It made headlines on a daily basis in all media outlets here.  I didn’t follow it as I choose what I put into my mind.  I didn’t (and still don’t) need to know all the gory details.

Suffice it to say, that apparently the accused was jealous of his brother-in-law with whom he shared management of a family farm, to the extent that he vandalised a house that his BIL had built and apparently wrote offensive words on a building before shooting him to death.  I don’t know the details; as I said I am not that interested.

What does interest me though is that the jury of 11 brought down a verdict of Not Guilty.  This tells me that even though they sat through all the proceedings for all those days, they didn’t think that the prosecution had proved their case beyond reasonable doubt.  Therefore, they had to bring in the Not Guilty verdict.  Here in New Zealand we don’t have a Not Proven verdict as they do in Scotland.  This verdict as explained by our old friend Wikipedia “The result is the modern perception that the “not proven” verdict is an acquittal used when the judge or jury does not have enough evidence to convict but is not sufficiently convinced of the defendant’s innocence to bring in a “not guilty” verdict.”

What bothers me about this is that today’s Dominion Post our local daily had most of its front page devoted to a survey they had mounted using 750 people.  Is this a fair representation of the adult population of New Zealand?  Those surveyed were asked “From what you have seen, heard or feel about the case, do you think it is more likely Ewen Macdonald is guilty or not guilty?” 48 per cent said guilty.  A further 20 per cent said not guilty, 28 per cent said they were unsure, and 4 per cent of people refused to answer.

As the lawyer for MacDonald, the accused, said the jurors had looked at more than 100 hours of evidence before unanimously agreeing he was not guilty

“Not a single person who responded to the survey heard anything close to that. Most people would have heard one hour of the case, so less than 1 per cent of what the jury heard – and what they heard was someone else’s slanted opinion.” he said today.

And may I add that the jurors were not called upon to voice or consider their feelings in the case, as those surveyed were.  Feelings can never be the basis on which a murder accused is tried.

I have no thought on whether or not this man is guilty.   I rejoice in the fact that we have a robust court system here that allows all the evidence to be heard by a jury (usually of 12 but for whatever reason 11 in this case).  The man has been tried and he has been acquitted.  Apparently there are other charges outstanding against him for which he will have to appear  in court.  But he cannot be re-charged with this murder.

So what of the future for this man who has been acquitted of murder in a court of law?  His wife has apparently left him, having sided with the prosecution in the case and wherever he goes in New Zealand he will always be known as the man who “got away with murder” if the results of this survey are anything to go by. Where is the justice in that?

And as I think about my fellow man/woman and how quick he/she is to condemn without knowing all the facts, I worry about the future of our world.

“Justice is justly represented blind because
she sees no difference in the parties concerned.
She has but one scale and weight for
rich and poor, great and small.”
William Penn, 1644 – 1718 English real estate entrepreneur, philosopher, and founder of the Province of Pennsylvania.

End of today’s rant.

14 responses to “The Court of Public Opinion

  1. We are quick to judge and quick to condemn, just as we are quick to praise and quick to build up. The common denominator is ‘quick’. I wish we all would take more time to deliberate with our own thoughts. (I hope that makes sense. I didn’t deliberate too long. (smile)) Excellent rant, Judith.


    • Thanks Lenore and yes, it does make sense. t seems we often open our mouths to make judgement on something or somebody without really having thought it through. 🙂


  2. justice, in its every aspect, a number of which you listed here, often seems rather ephemeral, does it not?


  3. It seems to be the same here in the U.S. if someone is found not guilty of murder.


  4. We went through this a while back in the U.S. with a woman accused of murdering her small child. She most likely did it, but the prosecution could not prove it. The jurors were vilified, but from what I saw, I think they did the best they could.


    • I do remember the media frenzy about that case. I do feel for those who are accused and acquitted whether because the case wasn’t proven or because they were innocent. The trial and the accompanying trauma will be with them forever as they go through their lives. Thanks for the comment.


  5. Totally agree Judith. I wish people would get more involved in political matters that affect all of our lives rather than making a soap opera out of a family tragedy.


    • Hi Thomas – a soap opera indeed. We have so many other things to concern us here in Godzone – youth suicide and the homeless would both be good places to start.


  6. I like your ranting Judith. And don’t you think the media are at fault? Cases in the U.S. are sometimes swayed by the media and no matter the outcome, the masses pass judgement without having seen all the evidence. Justice is just not fair nowadays. Now I’m ranting. 🙂


    • Hi Dor – perhaps we could start a rant club of two members. Thaks for the comment. I have said that I pity this man as he attempts to get on with his life and also the many others who were/are affected by this tragedy. 🙂


  7. “Beyond reasonable doubt”
    Who decides how much doubt is reasonable ? So far I have never been called for jury duty, I am keeping my fingers crossed that I never am. I doubt so much so often that I would never manage to come to a firm decision and then my decision would be so easily changed by someone else putting more doubt there instead.
    With that much responsibility resting on the outcome its really no wonder that quite often the guilty are pronounced inocent.


    • Thanks Sallyann. I have twice been called but never actually sat on a jury thank goodness. I would hate to have the responsibility of deciding whether a person is guilty or not and perhaps being responsible for an innocent person spending time in jail.


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