OPINION – Is justice alive and well in America today? In light of a recent high profile alleged murder case, the answer may require some consideration.
The acquittal last week of the man accused of the January 2010 killing of Millard County deputy Josie Greathouse Fox has sent shock waves throughout the state. Roberto Miramontes Román originally confessed to the deputy’s murder shortly after his arrest, but recanted his story on the witness stand.
Román claimed that the actual murderer was Fox’s brother, Ryan Greathouse, and that his initial confession was out of fear for his family’s safety. Greathouse was found dead of a drug overdose four months after his sister’s murder.
After heated deliberation, the jury concluded that the state had not provided sufficient evidence to prove its case against Román. Jury members instead found him guilty of two lesser charges involving tampering with evidence and illegal possession of a firearm.
But for the first time in Utah since 1973, a jury found an accused cop killer not guilty.
Outrage has followed the verdict. Accusations of wrongdoing have been leveled at the jury and the judge who presided over the case. Family members and law enforcement colleagues of the slain deputy have said they feel as though they’ve been slapped in the face. It’s understandable that their desire for justice appears to have gone unmet.
But in this case, the jury did precisely the correct thing.
One of the most important tenets of the due process that guides our criminal justice system is the requirement that the state prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. In every criminal proceeding, the burden of proof rests upon the state. This means that the accused is not required to prove his innocence, but the state must demonstrate his guilt by providing competent, credible, independent evidence, under oath, that the individual actually committed the crime.
This principle is one of the greatest protections of individual liberty in that it prevents the state from arbitrarily using its power to accuse, imprison and punish people at its whim.
If the state is unable to provide sufficient evidence of wrongdoing, the jury is correct to render a verdict of not guilty. It cannot compel an individual to incriminate himself or herself; nor can it build its case through evidence that was coerced out of a person. It is the government’s job to convince the jury of the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Constitutional attorney Jacob Hornberger explains why this is so: “What’s important to recognize is the underlying rationale behind due process of law — that is, why this principle was so important to Englishmen as well as to our Founding Fathers and the Framers: Given the enormous value they placed on people’s lives and liberty and given their recognition of the enormous power of the government, they wanted to ensure that as few innocent people as possible were executed or otherwise punished, even if that meant lots of guilty people went unpunished.”
The thought of a guilty person going unpunished is a bitter pill to swallow, but the prospect of an all-powerful state running roughshod over the rights of the people is even less palatable.
When jury members are presented with the choice of following their heads or their hearts, they must restrain their emotions and personal prejudices to carefully examine the state’s evidence. If the state’s evidence is lacking or fails to convince them, justice demands that the jury vote not guilty.
This can be especially difficult in cases like the killing of Deputy Fox since our civic religion teaches that the lives of state authority figures are of greater value than the rest of the citizenry. In truth, their lives are exactly as precious as our own. They are not a different class of citizen. With a few exceptions, such as specific offenses related to assault on a police officer, public servants are protected under the law and are subject to obey the laws just as we are.
It is the state’s obedience to law that protects the rights of all from abuse.
When the state ignores or defies laws that define and restrain its powers, it will rule at its whim. This has always been the defining characteristic of tyranny. The jury is one of the greatest safeguards of our freedom, because it acts as an authoritative check on state power.
The jury that found Román not guilty did its job correctly by denying prosecutors a conviction when the state failed to adequately prove its case.
The fact that a murder conviction was not obtained does not mean that Fox died in vain.
Bryan Hyde is a news commentator and co-host of the Perspectives morning show on Fox News 1450 AM 93.1 FM. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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