Jurors and Justice

“Representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty. Without them we have no other fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle and fed and clothed like swine and hounds.”

John Adams said this in 1774 and it may seem a bit hyperbolic. Two hundred and fifty years later, however, Adams has been proven correct, especially about trial by jury.

In my career, I’ve been repeatedly impressed by the thoroughness, wisdom, and integrity of twelve different people working together as a team with a single, laudable goal.

The goal of the jurors is justice. This begs the question of what is justice.

I wrote an op-ed on that topic. While the article is focused on a particular trial I was following and commenting on for local media, the main point applies to any jury trial.

Originally published by Matt Driscoll in the Tacoma News Tribune in Washington State, here it is below in its entirety.

Twelve Dispassionate People

Twelve jurors are currently deliberating in the trial of three Tacoma police officers for the death of Manny Ellis. Two officers are charged with murder and manslaughter. One is charged with manslaughter. 

Ellis, a Black man, died in their custody. 

We all want justice, but what does that mean? 

Justice does not mean the jury delivers the verdict you want. 

Justice does not mean a message that favors or condemns any particular segment of people. 

Justice does not mean your group of family and friends get to revel in validation from 12 strangers. 

Justice, in practice, means the decider of fact delivers a verdict based on the evidence and our laws, free of influences such as prejudice, politics, preconceived notions and bias. 

Some have suggested riots would be justified if the officers are not convicted. In September, an op-ed author wrote in a Tacoma newspaper, “The Ellis family and the community deserve justice and if the courts can’t deliver it, the protests and unrest, even riots that may follow will be earned and deserved.” 

Mindful of historical injustices, the author is right about the need for general police accountability. He’s wrong about riots. 

Here is my pro bono rewrite. “The Ellis family, officers and their families, and the community deserve justice.” 

What does Justice Look Like

Every Friday I’ve been reviewing and analyzing this case on KING 5 TV. I’ve watched most of it on live stream or pre-recorded video. I’ve talked with lawyers and civilians who’ve followed the case closely. 

Additionally, I’ve personally tried many high-profile cases, including homicides. 

Still, I know far less than the jurors. I have my opinions, of course, but I am far less qualified than the jurors to render a verdict. 

Only the jurors have been vetted by attorneys on both sides. 

Only the jurors have been instructed on the law by the judge. 

Only the jurors have sworn an oath they will “truly try the matters in issue and a true verdict render according to the evidence and the law.” 

In my experience, jurors take this oath to heart. 

I was a deputy prosecutor for 14 years. I was the elected Pierce County Prosecutor for almost a decade. I’ve been a personal injury attorney for five years. As a prosecutor, I made more than fifty charging decisions in officer-involved fatalities. As a civil attorney, I’ve filed three lawsuits against officers and their departments for wrongful death. 

I’ve seen a lot in this arena, but I haven’t seen this case from the jury box. 

My opinion is not equal to the jurors’. 

That said, I’ll still share my opinion. 

Police accountability is good for our community and law enforcement. 

History and Justice

Prior to I-940, it was almost impossible to convict an officer who killed someone in the course of his or her duties because the law required “malice” be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. That was the law when I was a prosecutor. We never charged an officer with murder. 

I can only recall one time in Washington State an officer was charged with murder under the prior law — an Everett police officer shot a drunk driver in the back as he tried to drive away. The officer was acquitted. 

After I-940, malice no longer needs to be proved. This was a good change. 

We want officers, public servants, to be accountable for their actions. 

We also want officers to be able to do their job and keep us safe without fear of being sent to prison for reasonable conduct in challenging circumstances, including good-faith mistakes. We need professional officers. 

Here, if the officers are acquitted, this case may serve as an example of prosecutorial overreach. If the officers are convicted, this case may serve as an example of police accountability in action. 

If the jury cannot decide, well, it’s their decision. 

Whatever the jury does, I appreciate their service. 

I won’t be rioting or griping. I will respect the verdict. Of all the people in our community, the jurors are best qualified to render a true verdict according to the evidence and the law. 

That’s justice. 

Mark Lindquist is the principal attorney of Mark Lindquist Law, a personal injury firm. He served as the elected Pierce County Prosecutor from 2009 until 2019.