Wait a minute. William Lynch admits to battering another human being – a 65-year-old retired priest, no less – and a jury lets him go free?
I can understand why the jury in the San Jose case felt sympathetic. Lynch says the priest, Jerold Lindner, brutally raped him when Lynch was 7 years old.
Although Lindner denied the incident, Lindner’s Jesuit order settled with Lynch for $625,000, and the prosecutor in the case agreed that Lynch had been assaulted.
That was apparently enough to persuade the jury to acquit Lynch on a felony assault charge. Only 8 of the 12 were willing to convict him of a misdemeanor assault, which meant Lynch could walk.
But even Lynch was surprised by the verdict, as he told KQED’s Stephanie Martin yesterday. “I believe that it was wrong for me to do what I did ultimately, because I'm perpetuating the cycle of sexual abuse, and it's the cycle I've lived in that I'm trying to break.”
I wondered what precedent this sets for our system of justice. So I called a couple of the state’s leading professors of criminal law, Evan Lee, from the University of California’s Hastings Law School in San Francisco, and Laurie Levenson of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. Here are some edited highlights of their remarks, combined from separate interviews:
EVAN LEE: I think there was a group of jurors who felt like “We’re here for a reason, and that’s to do justice. If the system contemplated us just sitting here and mechanically applying the rules to the facts do it, then they’d have the judge do it, or they’d have a panel of lawyers do it.” This was a specific case in which you had a human being testifying on the stand who had suffered obvious long-lasting, perhaps irrevocable harm from this very real experience. And not all jurors are abstract thinkers. Some jurors can’t get past the concrete facts of the case and the real human being in front of them.
LAURIE LEVENSON: This does not set any type of legal precedent. It does not mean and it should not mean that there is now free reign for everybody who feels abused to take the law into their own hands. They are going to be in a lot of trouble if they do that.
EVAN LEE: What happened here is arguably a case of jury nullification. Jury nullification is a term that refers to juries coming back with a verdict that they know is not in line with a judge’s instructions, but they feel that something about the prosecution is so enormously unjust that they feel compelled to come back with a different verdict.
LAURIE LEVENSON: The problem with jury nullification is that the jurors are basically standing in and saying, "We know better than the law." If this were to happen in every case, why bother having a law at all?
EVAN LEE: A lot of people believe it’s an important safeguard against the discretion of prosecutors to go after anybody they feel like going after. On the other hand a lot of people say that’s what happened in the first OJ [Simpson] trial and there are a lot of people who feel upset about this. A lot of people feel he didn’t get his just deserts. The harder question is whether this is going to change the behavior of future judges, future prosecutors, future witnesses. That’s really hard to say here.
LAURIE LEVENSON: I think it’s likely to affect whether prosecutors bring similar cases, and if they do, how hard they know they have to fight for the win. This is a real message to prosecutors, that "Yes, this fellow engaged in battery, but we were not willing to convict." When prosecutors have limited resources, they will have to take that into consideration in their next charging decision. Judges may be sensitive to the idea that there might be jury nullification and decide to emphasize to the jurors they have to follow the law. The biggest concern that other victims will say, “I’ll take just ice in my own hands I’ll be a vigilante and nothing is going to happen to me.”
EVAN LEE: Going and confronting the person that abused you many, many years ago is a highly personal matter. I think there a lot of victims out there never want to see this person again.
LAURIE LEVENSON: I think there is tremendous frustration in these [sexual assault] cases. I think the answer is that the law needs to be more aggressive. We have had a series of cases where the jury or the public could get the impression that nothing happens to these [sexual predators}, or not enough.