Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Narratives of rural life in criminal trials

The documentary Brother's Keeper tells the grim tale of a false confession to murder and explains how rural culture can contribute to the phenomena of false confessions in general. The documentary has the potential to help jurors in future trials comprehend why people in rural areas may not have the civic savvy to identify when they are being coerced by police into make a false confession.

In the film, four brothers live in a shack in a rural town of New York. Bill, the eldest, does not wake up one morning. Did he die naturally in his sleep? Or did his brother Delbert mercy kill sick and elderly Bill? Here’s the twist: Delbert confessed to police that he placed his hand over Bill’s mouth and suffocated him.

The defense attorney’s strategy is to show that Delbert is just simple country folk who, due to a feeble mind coupled with police coercion, falsely confessed to the murder of his brother. The prosecution paints a darker story of an uneducated hick that callously murdered his brother like he was a sick animal.   

Although the film never discusses the issue, it is interesting to compare two hypothetical jurors that might be asked to sit on this trial in such a rural area: one is Rudy and he is from a rural town just like the defendant; the other is Larry, from a larger nearby city. Both men receive a jury summons to appear at the municipal courthouse, located in the county seat. Who is likely to end up on the jury? First, the process assumes that both men are literate and fully appreciate the importance of the jury summons. Next, there is the issue of access to public transportation or a car to make the trip to the county seat. Yet another factor is the men’s ability to take time off from work and lose income. Given the statistics on rural life in this country, including lower educational access, lack of public transportation, and long-term poverty, it seems tentative that the “Rudys” of the world will actually be present for voir deer as often as the “Larrys”.

The result is that the defendant may not be tried in front of a group of peers that truly understand the context of his life and motivations.

Unfortunately, it is common in the criminal justice system that the jury is not composed of the defendant’s peers. (A common example is the number of minority defendants that are judged by completely white juries.) In regards to the case in Brother’s Keeper, Delbert’s defense hinges on the willingness of the jurors to believe that someone could falsely confess to a crime. Delbert’s defense battles against the assumption that everyone knows their Miranda rights. His defense fights the presumption that a confession equals guilt. However, Brother’s Keeper does an outstanding job of capturing the circumstances under which an uneducated, unsavvy “country bumpkin” could easily be misguided by coercive police interrogation tactics and ultimately confess to a crime that he did not commit. Most jurors, especially those from large cities with a higher education, would not be able to comprehend how someone could mistakenly admit to a murder. The documentary provides the background culture of rural life that could lead to such a false confession. 

The value of Brother’s Keeper potentially transcends its ability to explain why Delbert, in particular, falsely confessed to a crime. The film could be used in future criminal trials to provide jurors with a look at rural mentality and how that mentality can lead to a false confessions. Currently in California, the courts often allow defense counsel to read from newspapers, books, and magazines to explain the phenomenon of false witness identification and false confessions. The California District Court of Appeals in People v. Woodson explicitly rejected the view that a criminal defense lawyer is limited in closing arguments only to what was said in testimony or introduced into evidence during the trial. The court stated that “[i]f argument is to be so restricted, there could be no use made of the writings of philosophers, patriots, statesmen or judges.” As the law currently stands, lawyers may refer to popular movies and read from printed sources. With aggressive advocacy, criminal defense attorneys representing individuals from rural communities might successfully argue that documentaries like Brothers Keeper should be shown to jurors to provide context to a defendant’s actions. 


Tiffanie said...
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Tiffanie said...

I enjoyed reading this post, especially the part about the hypothetical jurors. You make a very important point about the selection of jurors versus the kind of defendants that are charged with crimes. A high percentage of defendants are minorities, and jurors may have difficulty connecting; many of the chosen jurors may have a much higher level of education, better socioeconomic status, and better resources overall.

I agree that this documentary would be an excellent example to show jurors to help them better understand the context surrounding one's actions. Great share!

David Gomez said...

This past summer I worked in criminal defense. The selection of the jury is incredibly important to trial strategy, but it can be overlooked. In my opinion the best quality a juror can have is to objectivity. Showing this film can help jurors understand that in a particular case even the most damning evidence can be suspicious.

Kate said...

Desi, I really like your blog post. It is interesting that an attorney is allowed to introduce arguments from movies that jurors have common knowledge of. I would also like to echo your overall opinion of the movie. I felt that there was a clear distinction in what could be comprehended and what was likely said to the rural persons. Juror selection in rural locals is a difficult question. How many of the people on the jury could actually be said to be Delpert's peers? A good question, even though ultimately the outcome was desirable. Good post.

Moona said...

You brought up an interesting point about the two potential jurors. This is something I had never considered before, so I thought this was an interesting way to look at it especially when comparing this to some of the jury selection cases we have been reading in constitutional law. But, I think reading these juror selection cases also demonstrated how difficult it can be to ensure that someone really does have a jury of their "peers". I wonder if the jurors can be taught, in some way, about the circumstances in which Delbert lives. Perhaps his defense attorney could lay the foundations for educating the jurors with his questioning.