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Commentary: Isn't a criminal record relevant?

February 4, 2008

I have a bit of a problem with the court system, and maybe one of you out there can help me with this.

I wrote a column in December about my experience with jury duty. The case involved a daughter, a mother and a question of whether the defendant-the daughter-would be charged with auto theft (a felony) or criminal conversion (a misdemeanor).

Briefly, here are the facts. The mother purchased a car and titled it in her name, but gave her daughter use of the car to go to work or search for a new job. The daughter, in her 30s, lived at home. Mom was helping her out.

The mother stated in court she never used the car, didn't like the car and purchased it solely for her daughter's use.

One day, the daughter disappeared with the car. After a few days, the mother went to the police with the intention of filing a missing persons report. She was told that her only option was to report the car stolen, which, after a couple days of pondering, she did.

The daughter stayed underground for several days. The car itself was found abandoned a couple of weeks later. The daughter was arrested and charged with auto theft.

During our deliberations, we jurors bemoaned the fact that we didn't think we had enough information about the case, particularly about the defendant, to make a judgment call on her character.

We only knew the bare-bones facts of this particular case, which seemed to all of us more like a family dispute than a legal matter.

We had a lot of questions. Why was the daughter living at home? Did she have a record? Why were prosecutors pushing for the felony theft charge in a case that seemed so frivolous to us based on what we knew?

In the end, we gave the defendant the benefit of the doubt and opted for leniency, finding her guilty of conversion and not guilty of theft. We believed the verdict would send her a strong message without putting a felony on her record and needlessly damaging her reputation.

Little did we know.

After the trial, we learned that prosecutors wanted to include some evidence about "a heroin problem" that involved the daughter but were not allowed to bring that to the court as evidence.

Within a week after the trial, I also found out that our defendant had been convicted of theft before and was on probation for it when she committed the offense in our case. Not only that, she had a probation violation pending in another court at the time.

That information would've been useful and helpful during our deliberations. My guess is that if we had known she had a record and was at the time in violation of a previous probation, we wouldn't have been so lenient.

My question: Why weren't we privy, and what does it say about our legal system that such information would be withheld?



Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column, send an e-mail to ckatterjohn@ibj.com.
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