WHERE HAVE OUR VALUES GONE?
I have been a trial lawyer for over 16 years and I made the mistake of thinking that there wasn't much that could surprise me until I read about a case in Hastings, Minnesota. This was a murder trial, and in this case Judge Rex Stacey had a problem. He had been informed that the father of one of his jurors had suffered a heart attack and his dilemma was whether to give the juror the news at which point the juror would have left deliberations and gone to be by her father's side, or he could choose to withhold the information. To me this is an easy one. I don't care what the situation is; if an individual's father has a heart attack and is at risk to die, I would let that person know.
Judge Stacey did not see it that way and he refused to tell the juror that her father had suffered a heart attack. Unfortunately, her father died several hours later before the jury had reached it's verdict so the juror never got to see her father again. Judge Stacey indicated that he was concerned about a mistrial as he had sent two alternate jurors home the previous day.
What was this judge thinking? Plan A might have been to postpone deliberations for a day to see what would happen with the ill father. Plan B could have involved locating one of the alternates and ordering him back to court. Judge Stacey didn't avail himself of either of these options. Instead he denied a woman her last moments with her father. He denied a woman the opportunity to meet her father at the hospital, to hold his hand, to look at him, to make peace with him, to love him, to do all of that which most people want to do when they are about to lose a loved one.
What did the juror do to deserve this? All she had done was to live up to her civic responsibility. When she got the slip in the mail dreaded by many telling her that jury service was about to descend upon her, she did not ignore her summons, she didn't tear it up and act as if it had never been received; she didn't write or call the court with some elaborate explanation as to why she could not serve on a jury, she showed up and when she was chosen to sit on a murder trial, she embraced her obligation.
Her reward for this appropriate behavior was to miss out on her father's few remaining hours. A child, be he a son or daughter, has only one natal father. When one is fortunate enough to go through life with the natal father as a positive influence that is something to be valued, to be treasured. There are plenty of sons and daughters who are not getting along with their parents these days. I can't help but wonder how the juror's father felt as he lay in the hospital bed fighting to stay alive and, I imagine, wondering where his daughter was. From the moment he had the heart attack until the moment he died, he never saw nor heard from his daughter. How could he have felt? Do you think he felt loved, cherished, valued? The man was dying! As he was losing his struggle with life, I wonder if a nurse or family member told him, "Well sir, your daughter is presently serving on a jury and the judge has decided not to tell her about your heart attack."
It's not that I don't understand Judge Stacey's sense of obligation to the criminal justice system. Assuming the worst case scenario (legally) with the case being declared a mistrial, yes it would be unfortunate, but where are our priorities? In the world of sports, there have been similar situations where athletes have not been told of a parent's sudden illness until after the athletic event is completed. To me, that's a travesty. While a murder trial is clearly more important than a ball game, where do the coaches and where does this judge come off making this kind of decision?
Shortly after the jury reached it's verdict, the juror was brought into the judge's chambers at which time her husband told her that her father had died minutes ago. Yes, the wheels of justice must grind on, but not at this price. Where is the humanity? Where is the conscience, where is the morality; and where are the priorities?
When I was a child, I spent one summer at an overnight camp, and while I was at camp, my grandmother took ill and died. My parents made the decision not to tell me and I didn't learn about her illness and subsequent death until I had returned from camp.
When people make decisions for other people in situations such as this, it robs them of the opportunity to grieve and to have appropriate closure.
Our lives are precious and when the inevitable time comes that we are to leave this earth, it would be nice to do so with dignity, support, and love. The father in this case was denied that and his daughter will have the rest of her life to wonder how her father looked as he was in the process of succumbing to the heart attack. She will have to spend the rest of her life knowing that a judge in Hastings denied her the opportunity to spend the remaining hours of her father's life with him.
Is it more important that a verdict be reached in a jury trial, rather than allowing a young woman to spend her father's remaining moments with him? In a society often filled with skewed priorities, Judge Stacey needs to re-evaluate what is important in life.
CHARLIE UNGER is a criminal defense attorney in the law firm of Flanagan, Booth & Unger in Glendale. Unger has completed his course work for a doctorate in psychotherapy and will be writing regularly on legal and psychological issues.