The Law Offices of David Michael Cantor 2015-2016 scholarship contest ended on November 30, 2016. The essays subject title was “The necessity and value of the presumption of innocence and reasonable doubt in the criminal justice system”. The minimum length requirement was 750 words (about a page and a half, single spaced). There were two individual occurrences which made this year’s contest so remarkable. First, the content of Jessica Wilson’s essay is highly unusual. She focuses on her own mother being tried and convicted for the murder of her father. The second occurrence which made this year’s contest so remarkable was the fact that only seven (7) people bothered to enter the contest in order to vie for the $2,500 scholarship.
The Law Offices of David Michael Cantor has a companion firm (Cantor Crane) that emphasizes only personal injury and civil litigation. A concurrent scholarship contest was run by Cantor Crane during this last year which only required that participants check a box avowing they would not consuming alcohol or drugs and drive; that they would use an Uber if they had consumed alcohol or drugs; and that they would never text and drive. In the Cantor Crane scholarship contest the award amount was $1,000. A whopping 2,997 people entered that scholarship contest, yet only seven (7) entered our contest which paid 2 ½ times more money (but required 750 words of written effort). Both scholarship contests were publicized on the same 30 college websites. As a practicing lawyer for the last 28 years, I am becoming worried that this new generation of lawyers might better be labeled as “Generation A” with the A standing for “Apathy”. Future lawyers, I am calling on you to put in a little more thought and effort than what can be accomplished by merely checking a box or entering 140 characters in Twitter.
Now, moving on to Jessica’s amazing essay. Jessica’s mother and father had been married for 30 years, which included decades of domestic violence. Her father was abusive not only to her mother, but also to Jessica and her brother. On the night of August 13, 2008, Jessica’s father attacked her mother with a knife and her mother grabbed a 22 caliber rifle and fired off six shots. Four of the shots struck Jessica’s father and he eventually died at the hospital.
When Jessica’s mother was put on trial, Jessica and her brother both fully supported their mother. The mother was ultimately convicted in 2010 of second degree manslaughter and sentenced to a 10 year prison term. Jessica now attends Northern Kentucky University and will be completing law school in May of 2017. She is an amazing young woman who will no doubt have a phenomenal legal career. We are including a copy of her scholarship essay and a link to an article published on December 19, 2010 by the Commonwealth Journal. The title of the article is “My Mother is Innocent” and was written by Jeff Neal.
“The Necessity and value of the presumption of innocence and reasonable doubt in the criminal justice system”
Every individual is innocent until proven guilty and must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Although these two phrases are the epitome of our criminal justice system, they are often disregarded and misunderstood. These standards were put in place to ensure fairness and justice, but these ideas seldom coincide in today’s justice system. The significance of this became apparent when my Mother was wrongfully convicted in 2010. She was tried and convicted in the shooting death of my father; her husband of 30 years. The system left me and my entire family desperate for answers.
My mother was an upstanding citizen in our rural Southern Kentucky town. Her and my father owned and operated a large dairy farm, which was well known in the area. Working side by side seven days a week caused severe tension between my parents which led to my father abusing my mother, verbally and physically. I was not alone in my knowledge of these incidents, as my mother had filed numerous emergency protection orders and divorce proceedings with the court. In August of 2008 the abuse escalated, leaving my mother fighting for her life. Unfortunately this resulted in my father’s death. This tragedy tossed my family into our local spotlight and people in the community no longer looked at my mother or our family in the same light.
Despite being offered a 10 year probation plea deal, my mother insisted on proceeding to trial. Our family had never been in any serious trouble and was unfamiliar with how the judicial system actually worked. We discussed options with our attorney and were educated on the mechanics of a trial. My mother thought that the odds were in her favor because of the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. As our attorney stated, “it has to be a unanimous vote of the 12 jurors, which think that you intentionally or maliciously killed your husband beyond a reasonable doubt.” He emphasized that the jurors are to decide this based on the evidence and testimony given and that they should have no more than a reasonable doubt in their mind when they vote. My entire family thought that it would be impossible for all 12 jurors to think that my mother had committed a crime.
My mother’s trial began three weeks before Christmas, in our brand new Courthouse. After a strenuous voir dire of members of our small community, who all seemed a little too eager to be selected, the trial began. The trial consisted of testimony regarding the 30 years of abuse my mother had endured, testimony regarding the night of the shooting, evidence showing where the spent shell casings from the gun had landed (which showed that my mother was backed into a corner of our kitchen at the time she pulled the trigger), expert witnesses who testified to my mother’s previous counseling at a local abuse shelter, and to her diagnosis of PTSD from the abuse. All of this seemed to show that this was a clear case of self-defense. The prosecution portrayed my mother as the aggressor, claiming that she killed my father to receive benefits from the farm, (which we later rebutted with testimony from the attorney who did the probate of my father’s estate), testimony from my father’s friends, and accusations that my mother was in a lesbian relationship. Despite the overwhelming evidence that supported my mother’s actions, she was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
I was absolutely disgusted when the jury’s decision was revealed. My brother and I immediately began working on the appeal process. During this time, we took many actions to understand the verdict. One of the most enlightening moments occurred when we decided to speak with the jurors. Although some of them refused to discuss the case with us, many agreed to. They each apologetically stated various observations such as “my mother’s attorney didn’t seem to think she was innocent; that my mother should have just left that night; that she didn’t seem remorseful, and that after deliberating for over 11 hours, they were ready to go home to their families. It took every fiber in my being not to slap each of these individuals across the face. I didn’t and still don’t understand how you can consciously send someone away for 10 years based on these types of perceptions. I was also informed that there was one juror who was somewhat of a bully, and coaxed the others into the verdict.
As we continued in our efforts to repair what had been done, I kept thinking about how the jury had come to their conclusion. It was obvious from speaking with them that they had not made their choice based upon what justice requires but instead on the social and environmental strains that were placed upon them. When you are selected as a trier of fact, you should take that responsibility seriously. You should assume the person is innocent based upon the law and the evidence presented, not because the person’s demeanor didn’t align with your expectation of how a person should look or act. This is a perfect example of why the presumption of innocence and reasonable doubt are both so important yet frequently dismissed.
The value of these two principles cannot be measured until you have fully felt the wrath of them or the lack thereof. This experience changed my perspective about the justice system drastically. It touched my soul in such a way, which inspired me to pursue a career in law. I am currently in my third year of law school, where I have participated with the Innocence Project and other advocacy groups. Since my family’s experience, I have seen many other cases where similar results ensued because of a similar disregard for the criminal defendant. I now more than ever believe that the presumption of innocence and the reasonable doubt standard are the most important factors in the criminal justice system and should not be taken for granted.
I understand that there is no way to completely ensure that these standards are followed in the upmost regard, but stories like mine should remind triers of fact and others involved in the criminal justice system that these standards are not just a part of the “courtroom script.” These standards are essential in seeking the truth and integrity of the cases at hand. The significance of the presumption of innocence and the reasonable doubt standard is vast. They should be carefully reflected upon in all aspects of the criminal justice system and given the weight that they deserve.
Here’s an article about the story in the Common Wealth Journal:
‘My Mother is Innocent‘ by Jeff Neal