Denying Potential 3rd Party Culpability

“The RSD Central Homicide Unit has a reputation for tunnel vision.  Once they settle on a suspect, not even contrary facts will dissuade them”  –  Former Indio Homicide Detective 

In a pretrial hearing, a few months before the Pinyon Pines Murders trial was to start, a series of guidelines were being established about how the trial was to be conducted. Over a two-plus day hearing, a pattern was developing: The defense could either concur with the prosecution, or dissent and get shot down.  Should the defense venture to propose their own motion, it would simply get shot down.

Watching this pattern repeat itself on issues of ever-larger importance revealed another pattern: how the judge appeared to think out loud, so as to put his reasoning on the record. His reasoning was either short and rigid, or long and meandering.  When his reasoning granted value to a defense position, he would continue is reasoning until it didn’t.  He may make several stops along the way, his eyes searching up and to the left, then to the right, searching for a reason to finally discredit the defense motion. Then he would state the found reason, elaborate for a moment, then affirm the denial.

This happened again and again. To observers inclined for the defense, the emotional whiplash of seeing a budding sense of hope get quickly crushed became a familiar and repetitive sensation. Over time, there became a gnawing sense that this judge was going to side with the prosecution reliably.

Towards the end of the second day, a very significant motion was raised: whether to allow a discussion of so-called ‘3rd party culpability‘.  Simply put, if a certain alternate murder scenario is plausible, and rises to a certain level of evidentiary credibility, then it should be open for discussion in front of the jury.

A Compelling Alternative

A certain murder scenario was compellingly presented by attorney John Patrick Dolan, backed up by reports in the body of investigative work developed by Riverside County Sheriff’s investigators. The evidence  contained in this scenario was mostly circumstantial, just like that of the core case that is the focus of the hearing.  In fact. the parallels of evidence were striking: matching shoes to footprints, cell phone records, or lack thereof, personal relationships with the victims, shocking witness testimonials, etc. Unlike the core case. there was even a potential motive.  In fact, there were some additional elements that would make any jury sit up and take notice.

Add to this the family connections the subjects had with a local politician and the district attorney’s office in general, and suddenly the subjects of this alternate scenario take on a more significant value. Suspicious minds may start to be watchful of inappropriate protectionism.

In the end, with eyes searching up and to the left and right, the judge’s meandering analysis finally came to rest on a reason for denial. The investigators seem to think the subject’s phone was elsewhere at the key moment. Add to that, the subject called the victim after the fact. Incredibly, the logic goes: “why would he call her if he knew she was dead?”

While the judge clearly considered this a serious consideration, a comedy TV detective series asked and answered the same question; in the span of a few seconds:

‘Psych’ Season 3 Episode 13

Observers were in disbelief. Even a two-bit TV comic detective could spot the reason: The subject could have been starting a cover-up. If so, it seemed to work superbly.

The Jury Was Denied Information

So the jury was denied an extremely critical bit of information. One that would affect their ‘reasonable doubt’ calculation.

In the absence of a credible alternative, the jury is left with a limited choice: either the prosecution’s case or nothing at all. A ‘not guilty’ verdict would likely mean that this case would go unsolved. The families  of the victims would never see ‘justice’.

With the introduction of an alternative scenario, the jury’s decision is substantially different: story A or story B?  Given an option to evaluate the competing bodies of evidence for each scenario, a much more critically reasoning mindset would be sure to emerge from the jurors. With two equally compelling scenarios, could a juror be certain of one over the other beyond reasonable doubt?  If not, the defendants would deserve their freedom.

The judge’s ruling on the pretrial motion was to deny the defense any opportunity to present this compelling case to the jury.  Hands were tied. Not a word was to be spoken.  The effect of the ruling was dramatic. The subject of that 3rd party scenario was also a key witness in the trial. Should he have been denied an element of credibility? Did he have reason to change his testimony? Should the defendant be made to appear deceptive because his statements conflicted with his 3rd party counterpart?

But, Surely, Someone Has to Pay!

The idea that a possibly-culpable defendant could be getting away with murder strikes at the core of our personal sense of justice. It takes a civilized mind to control such an impulse. It can be uncomfortable to defer to Blackstone’s ratio: that ten guilty should go free before one innocent should suffer. But it should be more uncomfortable to think that a society would want vengeance irrespective of actual culpability.

Yet, that is precisely what they got.

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