The murder trial experience

As I was sitting through the last four weeks of the murder trial, I kept wondering what I would say about it all in the end.

There were moments where both attorneys attacked with a quick and vicious firing of questions, slashing at the otherís witness as if wielding a switch blade. A few of the 50-plus witnesses called in the case succumbed to their cross-examined wounds before the jury, leaving a bloody trail of credibility behind them as they departed.

It doesnít happen all that often, but watching a person fall apart on the stand can be exhilarating. Itís among those extraordinary moments where real life actually appears to overlap a Hollywood scene or crime series.

One Friday afternoon, an attendant who mistakenly thought the judge requested the jury began calling them upstairs. Broome County Judge Martin E. Smith, who was making little progress in a legal debate with the attorneys at the time, leaned far back into the bench, tossed his glasses on the desk like a bad poker player before lurching forward holding his head as if to keep it from exploding. ďOh my God, Iíve lost control,Ē he moaned in an exaggerated fashion, mocking the sudden and rare appearance of confusion in his court. The courtroom rolled in a burst of laughter from all sides. I even saw the defendant chuckle; we all did.

The moment was probably more amusing to those who attended the trial because youíd know after just one day who was in control Ė the judge. Smithís vast knowledge of the law and unpredictable wit cornered both lawyers into dumbfounded silence on more than one occasion. He never indicated during the whole affair that he was partial to any topic save the integrity of the retrial. He told witnesses what to do, he didnít ask them, he interrupted attorneys even during the most heated moments of the trial to make sure they followed proper form, and they complied.

During the course of the murder retrial, defendant Peter Wlasiuk could be seen fumbling around the defenseís extensive collection of documents and photographs, procuring information for his attorney whenever it was indicated by his lawyer.

Something I didnít expect were the images cast up before the whole court on a six by six foot projection screen. They were images of the victim being pulled open by various medical apparatus to better display her wounds, which forensic experts pointed at with red laser beams, telling the jury in venerable opinions their source. The family of the victim, her mother among them, always turned their heads with raised hands at the brow. Patriciaís family came to court every day.

Many I run into outside of the court never seemed very surprised at the verdict; makes sense I guess, given the first trial was so illicit with prejudicial information it was rescinded by a higher court. Public opinion and the media, however have no such mechanisms.

I was shooed away from the main lobby of the courthouse along with a handful of others who were patiently waiting during the deliberation because the jury could be heard debating amongst themselves in aggressively raised voices just down the hall. At one point an attendant expressed concern over the sounds of disagreement and was lightheartedly told that unless blood was coming from under the bottom of the door, they canít interfere.

A juror I spoke with after the verdict told me he didnít think a unanimous decision was possible until 20 minutes before it was made, because three of the members were firmly under the impression that the defendant lacked intent.

Since about Aug. 28, the day after the defenseís motion to move the murder case out of Chenango County was rejected, Iíve written a daily story on the case for about the last month. Iíve read prior trial transcripts and every single Evening Sun story thatís been printed since the day of the accident in April 2002. Iíve even spoken with the defendant from the Chenango County Correctional Facility several times, accumulating a total time of perhaps two hours of telephone conversation. Since his appeal in 2006, Iíve sat through nearly all the open court proceedings on the case, including the last four weeks of testimony and jury selection. Iíve had my ear bent to ďoff recordĒ gossip and gained a peek at the occasional ďinsider informationĒ on both sides of the courtroomís aisle.

So what did I think? I think Iím more concerned with the process than the result most of the time. Iím glad Wlasiukís case was appealed; if he really didnít get a fair chance, he should be allowed one, despite the criticisms. I think he got a fair trial this time. If the jury thought Wlasiuk is guilty, and they are the most informed and impartial judges of the case that our system can muster, then who can disagree? Not me.

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