Some of my posts generate interesting discussions in the comment sections. At times, readers misunderstand what I wrote. Other times they express a different opinion. In both cases, the ensuing discussions can raise issues that are deserving of further consideration.
One issue, which has become perplexing in some ways, may have led to some answers in other ways. And even if those answers are not definitive, they raise further questions which may teach us things that we can use to improve the world we live in.
As my regular readers may remember, I have written a number of posts about a Wellesley, Massachusetts cyclist who was struck and killed by a truck, not far from his home. A thorough investigation was undertaken whereby several agencies collaborated in gathering information and reconstructing the accident.
Based on the findings of the investigation, the District Attorney’s office decided to press charges against the truck driver. In order to do that, the case had to be brought before a grand jury.
Many people do not understand what a grand jury is and how it functions. For that reason, I researched this matter and wrote about it in an earlier blog post. From the American Bar Association’s FAQ page I offer the following:
“How are grand jurors selected?
In most jurisdictions, grand jurors are drawn from the same pool of potential jurors as are any other jury panels, and in the same manner. The pool generally consists of names culled from various databases, such as national voter lists, motor vehicle license lists and public utilities lists.”
“Does anyone screen grand jurors for biases or other improper factors?
No. Unlike potential jurors in regular trials, grand jurors are not screened for biases or other improper factors.
The prosecutor drafts the charges and reads them to the grand jury. There is no requirement that the grand jury be read any instructions on the law, and such instructions are rarely given.”
We can see several things from this information. First, grand jurors are lay people with no training in the law. Second, they are not screened for biases or other improper factors which may influence their decisions. And third, despite the fact that they have no formal training in the law, they are rarely read any instructions about the law.
I raised these facts in the post I wrote about the grand jury’s decision not to indict the truck driver in this case. Nonetheless, a regular reader of my blog, who has referred to this post in his comments thinks that the grand jury “got it right” by doing this because they were “following the law.”
Having received a number of comments from this reader, I have concluded that he is a cyclist (in spite of his insistence on blaming the Wellesley cyclist for causing his own death) and he is sincere in his desire to come up with a theory to explain this incident.
He wants to lay part of the blame for the incident on the cyclist so that he can claim that the grand jury did the right thing; in his eyes they followed the law.
There’s only one problem with this theory: it flies in the face of logic. First, he blames Massachusetts law for the grand jury’s action. He draws conclusions about Massachusetts law, allegedly on first-hand knowledge of the law when he neither lives in Massachusetts nor practices law there.
Second, he overlooks the fact that the people who put together the case against the truck driver are lawyers -— that’s why they’re called district attorneys. They have attended law school and are members of the bar in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As such, they deal with Massachusetts law every day.
Nonetheless, he believes that they would spend taxpayer dollars on conducting a comprehensive investigation and putting together a case, when there was not a case to be made against the driver.
So, he sees the DA as not knowing anything about Massachusetts law, but he thinks that the laypeople on the grand jury, who have no training or instruction in the law, knew better that the lawyers what Massachusetts law says about this matter.
This is completely illogical and proof of why grand juries don’t work in favor of justice. If my reader was sitting on a grand jury, he would bring his prejudices to the table and would claim to be following the law -— which he values.
Just as he has convinced himself that the Wellesley cyclist caused his own death, he would convince himself that his prejudices were based in the law. This is not unusual and is probably what many grand jurors do. They convince themselves that their biases are consistent with the law.
In this particular case, I happen to know people in Wellesley who have firsthand knowledge of the investigation results. According to them, there was plenty of evidence of the driver’s guilt. Therefore, it was not an astute understanding of the law which compelled them to let this driver off the hook. It was ignorance of the law.
Perhaps someone who wants to excuse the grand jurors for their decision could attribute it to stupidity instead of bias, but based on what I know about this case, following the law can’t be the explanation; we must look elsewhere.
Now just to put a twist on this whole scenario, I should mention that the reader who sees this grand jury as following the law says he would agree with me if this incident occurred in other states where he thinks the law would work to indict the truck driver. Although I didn’t ask him, I suspect that he doesn’t practice law in either of those states, just as he doesn’t practice law in Massachusetts. Therefore, his legal opinion is mere conjecture.
He and I will never agree about this case. I know what juries in Massachusetts are like because I’ve been hit by a car here and consulted a lawyer about my case. He told me in no uncertain terms that it is difficult to bring charges against a driver for hitting a cyclist and virtually impossible to convict a driver in such cases due to bias on the part of the jury.
Several lawyers I know, who are familiar with the Wellesley case, agree that bias played a role in the grand jury’s decision. So do most of the local cyclists I know.
For this reason, and because everyone involved in the investigation believes there is strong evidence against the driver, the cyclist’s widow has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the driver ands employer. The lawyers I spoke to think that she has a good case and that the grand jury’s decision will not negatively affect her chances of prevailing.
So where does this leave us? Well, for one thing, my reader’s obstinacy in clinging to his belief that he knows and understands Massachusetts law better than lawyers who practice here shows how strong prejudice can be. He wants to blame the cyclist, at least in part, for causing this accident and will justify it anyway he can.
I believe that bias is the best explanation for the jury’s decision, but stupidity can’t be ruled out. The outcome of the civil case may shed some light on what happened and will answer some questions about who was to blame. Until then, we’ll just have to accept cyclists and non-cyclists blaming cyclists for causing their own deaths when they get hit by a motor vehicle.