It is often a matter of the attorney’s preference that determines whether or not his client would be better off or worse off in a jury trial or a one where the judge is the ‘trier of facts’. However, in the case of an adolescent tried for murder, it may be detrimental for the defendant to forgo his right of a trial by jury.
One of the aspects of this case that might be indicative of a more lenient outcome from a trial by jury is the defendant’s age. While subjecting his fate to the decision of only one individual in the case of a trial where the judge ultimately determines his sentence, relinquishing one’s fate instead to a jury of twelve of the defendant’s peers would likely have garnered a far less severe sentence. Not only is it likely that the jury might have taken pity on a seventeen-year-old Richard, but it is also equally unlikely that all twelve jurors would have unanimously arrived at the decision to impose such a lengthy prison sentence for a misguided, albeit disturbed, minor.
Furthermore, in a trial by jury, both prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys have the right to objectively shape the composition of the jury. Within reason, attorneys on either side of the argument have the “right to a peremptory challenge—to reject a potential juror without stating a reason,” (Linton, 2013). Of course, such requests may never be the result of biases towards or against a specific race or gender, but they serve their purpose nonetheless. As such, it is reasonable to assert that a competent and ethical attorney would use this legal ploy to the advantage of his client, at least within the boundaries of the law. However, with this in mind, it is important to note that any perceived benefit from the selection process of this type of trial is contingent in large part on the argumentative skill of the attorney.
It is indeed the responsibility of the attorney to not only argue in the defense of his client but also that he structure his argument in lieu of the characteristics of the jury. Of paramount importance to success is that an attorney “preparing for trial…look beyond the four corners of the agreement by contemplating how jurors will see the case from a more global perspective of fairness” (McCabe, 2013). A related concept here, further explicated in McCabe’s 2013 article, applies to the strategy with which attorneys combat situations that are, for lack of a better term, a matter of being unlucky in the courtroom, as in the following example:
“For instance, a judge may instruct jurors that the defendant is not legally obligated to disclose certain information to the customer. However, jurors may perceive this information to be useful to the plaintiff and the failure to disclose it as a violation of “fair play”. In this case, the violation is one of distributive justice in that the defendant presumably gained from the non-disclosure. It is then possible that this perception will influence the jurors’ decision calculation, despite the admonition” and ultimately lead to a wrongful conviction (p. 8).
Such situations are not at all uncommon in courtrooms today, and in fact, it is much more likely than not that attorneys from both sides will find themselves in predicaments much like this. However, considering such situations as opportunistic rather than detrimental, Richard’s lawyer could certainly have constructed an argument to not only convince the jury of imposing a lesser sentence, but one to potentially acquit him entirely.
One cannot say with certainty whether a jury might have been the best option for a young Richard, but there are certainly elements of the trial-by-jury process that suggest a lesser sentence was reasonably ascertainable. Given the jury’s perception of the defendant’s situation and the specifics of the crime, as well as some of the advantages granted attorneys during the selection process, it seems probable that a jury would have been the ideal ‘trier of fact’ for this case.
Linton, C. (2013). We the jury. Newsweek Global, 161(22), 1.
McCabe, J. G. (2013). Who's the fairest of them all?. Of Counsel, 32(1), 5-9.