There is an interesting argument raised in a motion for a new trial for convicted murderer, Christopher Vaughn (left). Vaughn was convicted this summer in less than an hour in the killing of his family. Vaughn however is talking about the murder trial of another defendant, Drew Peterson (right). He is arguing that the conduct of the Peterson attorneys was so public and obnoxious that it tainted his own case before the jury.
Public defender George Lenard claims that daily press conferences and alleged grandstanding of Peterson’s lawyers poisoned the well of jurors for all defendants. Lenard insisted their conduct “gave criminal defense attorneys, all of us, a black eye.”
Former Peterson lawyer Joel Brodsky not surprisingly took issue with the claim and responded that “[w]hen you don’t have a good argument, you make a bad one.” He added “I guess if it rains tomorrow, it’s my fault.”
Vaughn is awaiting his sentence for the 2007 slayings of his wife and three children, ages 12, 11 and 8. The family was shot in the family’s SUV on a trip to a Springfield water park. One of his daughters, Abigayle, was shot as she clutched a stuffed animal.
Prosecutors cited Vaughn’s emails discussing his desire for a new life, often citing poet Henry David Thoreau in describing his wish to live in the forest.
Judge Daniel Rozak has agreed to review the broadcast reports and press conferences cited by Vaughn’s counsel and delayed sentencing. Lenard has cited 51 grounds for a new trial, though he began his more than two-hour oral argument with attacks directed at former Peterson co-counsel Joel Brodsky. That is a bit surprising given the low likelihood of success of this particular claim. There are solid arguments for the defense and it undermines those arguments to lead with this type of argument. Ironically, it could be viewed by the court as doing what Brodsky is accused of doing in defense of Peterson by emphasizing the most sensational of the claims.
Some may be inclined to agree with Lenard, particularly in a press conference where Peterson’s defense team seemed to mock the disappearance of Peterson’s fourth wife, Stacy. However, that does not make for an obvious criminal appellate issue. Giving “criminal defense attorneys — all of us — a black eye” does not readily translate into depriving a defendant of a fair trial. As a criminal defense attorney, I share the concern over such displaced or transferred anger. However, the court is likely to view this as too speculative a basis for a new trial.
Lenard combines that bad press in Peterson with the extraordinarily short deliberation of the jury to raise the concern: “I don’t know exactly what it is that they were thinking, but 45 minutes and not asking for any exhibits, not wanting to hear any testimony, that’s extremely rare. I’ve never had that situation before and that’s odd.” There is no question that this is a disturbingly short deliberation, but it is also a case that likely caused great anger for many jurors, particularly in the death of these children. There was little need to add Peterson’s counsel to stoke such anger when you have the image of an innocent little girl clutching her stuffed animal while being shot. It is one of the great challenges of criminal defense work to try to get a jury to look past that shock and anger and to focus on the sufficiency of the evidence. It is clear that the jurors found the evident not just sufficient but overwhelming in light of their rapid return of a verdict. After all, it takes 20 minutes to just get situated and organized in such deliberations.
Should the short period of deliberation cause the court to consider a new trial or should judges ask jurors to deliberate longer in returning such fast verdicts? The answer of all courts in the past that I know of has been no. What do you think?