A jury blind to justice
Danny Harrison

A jury blind to justice

[This column was originally published on Saturday, July 9, 2016 in the print editions of Fayette County News and Today in Peachtree City.]

It’s been a week since a Fayette County Superior Court jury declared Craigslist robbery defendant Joshua Wright “not guilty,” and it still bothers me.

If you read our news reports from our courtroom trial coverage over the last couple of weeks, you may remember that Wright’s attorney in his opening arguments told the jury face-to-face that his client absolutely took part in that first robbery, which turned out to be an armed robbery, because Wright’s friends Armoni Strozier and Malik Miles both pulled starter pistols on their victim.

The attorney told jurors Wright sat in the background of the Heritage Lake clubhouse parking lot while Strozier and Miles approached the victim, and he said the three retreated to Wright’s house, which is just over the fence from that parking lot, to split the $300 proceeds equally three ways.

“Yes, I took the $100. That was very, very bad judgment on my part,” Wright’s attorney said to the jury in a voice meant to indicate he was speaking as Wright himself.

The defense attorney went on to say Wright got spooked when he saw the guns, which he supposedly didn’t know would be used, though the district attorney’s office, Fayette County Sheriff’s Department, and Fayetteville Police Department collectively produced evidence suggesting Wright did know about the starter pistols. Wright through his lawyer said when he saw the pistols he decided to step back from the scheme.

Here’s the problem with that claim: During the first trial last fall, Wright from the witness stand said he saw one of the guns before he went over the fence into the clubhouse parking lot. So why did he continue over the fence? Why did he sit there in plain view of the victim while his friends robbed the victim? Why did he let them, guns and all, back into his house? And why did he split the money with them?

And then the next day, why did Wright let these same two friends ride the school bus back to his house and enter his house again? And why did Wright borrow his brother’s car and drive these friends to the Brandon Mill subdivision clubhouse parking lot, where they committed two more armed robberies using the same Craigslist ad scheme? And why did Wright pick them back up later and drive them both home?

None of it adds up to Wright being innocent of anything, and yet the jury unanimously found him “not guilty.”

When I tried to ask the jury members for their comments after the trial, I received the hand-in-the-face treatment and looks of disdain. Compare that with the fact that several jurors made their way over to the defense attorney, hugged him, congratulated him, and, on at least one occasion, whispered something in his ear.

Something’s not right about what happened Friday afternoon, and I feel sick about it because I don’t know what to do except to share it with you, our readers.

A long-time friend of mine jokingly says, “I guess it’s all down to prayer now.” That means he has exhausted human efforts and remembers to ask God to get involved.

I’ve heard District Attorney Scott Ballard on a few occasions publicly thank the community for serving on juries. He notes that the DA’s office can only do so much, police can only do so much, and judges can only do so much, and that many of the really serious criminal cases will fall into the hands of a jury. He rightly notes that good juries keep communities safe.

So then what happened July 1 in Judge Mack Crawford’s courtroom? What kind of a jury was that?

How do they listen to an admission to at least one of the three reduced-to-robbery charges and still declare Wright “not guilty” on that and one other charge? And to this minute, I still don’t understand how they got hung up on the third charge, which was an impromptu armed robbing of the second victim’s ride-along father.

It’s sad enough to see this on the federal level (think FBI and Hillary Clinton; the U.S. Supreme Court and Texas), but I thought Fayette County was home to people who still believed in the rule of law.

According to Wright and his attorney, who spoke with me a few minutes after their favorable verdict, the jury wanted to give Wright a “second chance.”

Is that their place? No.

The jury’s role is to determine the facts of the case and the guilt or innocence of the defendant. It is not their job to determine anything else. So who are they to give second chances? That is the judge’s job, if anyone’s.

If any of the jury is reading this column, I wonder if you ever thought about the victims in these cases. I wonder if you would think Wright was innocent if you saw him there at your armed robbery and then later learned he personally pocketed $100 of your money.

As I write this column, it’s Thursday afternoon, and I’m scheduled to cover a Fayetteville City Council meeting tonight. That’s an important group of community leaders, and they will discuss and vote on important community matters. But what they do is not, in my opinion, as important on the whole in keeping Fayette County a decent place to live.

What happens in our courtrooms is of utmost importance, I believe. That’s why I try to spend as much time there as my schedule allows.

And that’s also why I found it so discouraging to learn recently that one of the district attorney candidates involved in the current runoff has resorted to serious and blatant dishonesty. If you haven’t read those pieces, click the links at the bottom of this column.

I’ve appealed to Fayette residents to drop by and sit in on trials just to take an interest in what happens in local courtrooms, but to date I’ve only met two people who have bothered to do so. Tonight’s Fayetteville City Council meeting will have interested citizens show up, some of whom show up every meeting regardless of what’s on the agenda. Why not the courtroom?

Friends, if we take our eyes off the Fayette County Justice Center, we are doomed as a community to become like so many other counties where many of you won’t enter to shop or dine out for fear of personal safety. Just the same, if we allow and justify lies, deception, and even outright crime, we will become these other counties.

Twenty years from now, when the adults in charge look back through our newspaper archives, perhaps this opinion column will serve as a clue as to “what happened” toward Fayette County becoming another place where rule of law and respect for authority were thrown out the window.

Isaiah 5:20 says, “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.”

Proverbs 17:13 says, “Whoso rewardeth evil for good, evil shall not depart from his house.”

Those are powerful verses. When we justify sinful actions, we erode communities.

Jury members, when you declared Wright “not guilty,” you told the world that you would rather look after a fellow Fayette County resident than to hold him accountable. You told the world that victims don’t always matter.

And before you start blaming so-called “millennials,” let me note that the jury was made up of quite a few Baby Boomers, including the jury foreman.

———————–

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Danny Harrison

Danny Harrison, a 1992 Fayette High School graduate, began his journalism career with Fayette County News in 1995. After taking several leaves of absence to pursue journalism and Christian ministry opportunities, including a few out of state and overseas, he returned full-time to Fayette County News in August 2014. Harrison earned a bachelor's degree in pastoral ministry in 2009 while serving as a missionary journalist in England and Western Europe.