The Not Exactly Complete Works of Peter Schulman

Circumstantial Evidence

©2010 Peter Schulman
 

 

  Chapter 1  

  Chapter 2  

  Chapter 3  

  Chapter 4  

  Chapter 5  

  Chapter 6  

  Chapter 7  

  Chapter 8  

  Chapter 9  

  Chapter 10  

  Chapter 11  

  Chapter 12  

Chapter 2

It wasn’t fair. I had been a prosecutor for seven years and a cop for a dozen years before that. This was Alfred Boxer’s first criminal trial.

I had taken courses on how to influence a jury. He had never tried a criminal case before a jury. That wouldn’t have been such a big deal if this had been a misdemeanor. His client was on trial for murder.

It just wasn’t fair. I’m supposed to win. I try to win. But justice is even more important to me than winning. It’s probably a character flaw for a prosecutor.

It was not that I thought Priscilla Caldwell wasn’t guilty. I was about to tell this jury in detail why I thought she was. It was just that Priscilla Caldwell deserved better. She could certainly afford anyone she wanted to represent her.

She deserved to have somebody telling the jury what was wrong with my case; somebody to persuade them she couldn’t have done it or wouldn’t have done it or, at the very least, that there was some small possibility she didn’t do it.

She deserved to have somebody tell them the butler did it, even though they didn’t have a butler.

Alfred Boxer was the Caldwell family lawyer. He handled their business affairs quite ably. He was well-respected in the Philadelphia legal community, and deservedly so.

He certainly looked the role. He wore a different expensive, conservative suit every day of the trial. His haircut looked like he came straight from the barber, yet so natural you could believe it had never been cut; that it had always been that way.

He was a good friend of Priscilla’s family. He was an experienced enough lawyer that he should have known better than to handle a criminal trial.

Alfred Boxer had given a thoroughly lackluster closing. I’m not sure an artful one would have helped.

He hadn’t presented evidence of anyone else with a concrete motive. He had presented no evidence that Priscilla Caldwell had been anywhere other than in their home at the time of the murder. He hadn’t hired his own scientific experts to go over the crime scene or the evidence we had collected.

Alfred told the jury my case was based entirely on circumstantial evidence; that it was unreliable, without pointing to any specifics or even giving them a plausible framework for doubting it.

Priscilla Caldwell had not invested her money wisely. Any public defender with a few months experience could have done a better job.

He should have inoculated the jury with something like, “I’m sure Mr. Smith will graciously concede the weakness of his case. But, of course, you would have seen that even if you had been asleep for half the trial.”

“We’ve been working together on this case for a week now and we’ve just about reached the point where my involvement is going to end and the entire matter will be in your hands,” I told the jury.

“Mr. Boxer told you this is a case based entirely on circumstantial evidence. He’s absolutely right. If that is a problem for you, you always have the option of finding the defendant not guilty. I have no problem with that.

“It’s not my job to win. My job is to present the evidence and help you understand why that should compel you to find Priscilla Caldwell guilty.

“I don’t get a bonus if you convict. I don’t get extra vacation. If I’ve made a compelling case and you decide the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, I get something much more valuable: I get the satisfaction of helping to carry out justice.”

This is part of why it isn’t fair. I know that by telling the jury of the weaknesses of my case, I’m dissipating the power of his argument. I’m telling them I wouldn’t do anything to get a verdict I don’t deserve. That isn’t entirely true, but it is the impression I’m conveying.

“But you have to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt. Don’t convict if you aren’t. Don’t give me any consideration for putting on a good case, for acting professionally, for being a good guy, or just for being so darn charming, as difficult as that may be for you to overlook.” I gave them my most winning smile and flirtatious voice. There was tittering in the courtroom including the jury.

“The benefit of any doubt must go to the defendant.” I pointed to her. “The system doesn’t work if we don’t do it that way.

“That being said, you should have no problem finding guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. I’ll walk you through that in a minute.

“First, I’d like to talk about the concern that all we have here is circumstantial evidence.

“Physical evidence is great to have. I’ll take all I can get. It’s usually clear. It lets us nail down certain aspects of a crime, such as the murder weapon in this case.

“Scientific evidence is especially nice. It can often prove that a defendant could not possibly have committed the crime or that he must have.

“Eyewitness evidence is often very helpful.” And unreliable as hell.

“But the reality is: criminals don’t want to be caught. They do whatever they can to get away with it. They usually don’t videotape their crime, though that happens now and then. They don’t invite observers.

“An essential part of their job is to get away with it. They leave as little evidence as possible. The more skillful the criminal, the less evidence we collect. The less evidence we collect, the more we need to rely on circumstantial evidence.

“That means the police and prosecutor must collect evidence and information capable of explaining to good citizens like you, what happened, when it happened, who caused it to happen and why they caused it to happen. That means, sometimes all we have is circumstantial evidence - evidence from which you can draw the correct inferences as to the what, when, who, and why of the crime.

“If our system didn’t allow that, you and I wouldn’t be safe in our homes. Any time a crime was committed without leaving a substantial amount of scientific or physical evidence, or videotape, or photographs, the criminal would go free.

“These inferences can be extremely powerful and persuade you to make decisions based on them as if you were actually able to see the events yourself.

“Suppose you park your car in the driveway. Later you come out of your house with the only key and find your car missing.

“Your car is missing.” I held up my left thumb. “There is no second key.” I added my left index finger. “You didn’t give anyone permission to use it.” My middle finger joined the other two. “This is all just circumstantial evidence.

“Let me ask you this: Will you wait for the car to come back or will you call the police?” I paused to give them a moment to consider my question. I smiled.

“Come on,” I cajoled and moved my head in a follow-me gesture. “I know your answer. When you make that call it means you have decided it’s beyond any reasonable doubt. That is the role of circumstantial evidence in general and the nature of the circumstantial evidence in this case.”

“Let’s review what we know.

“On the evening of January 2, 2000, Prentice Caldwell was sitting in the library on the first floor of his home. That library contains over twenty-five hundred books, most of which he had read. Given the chance, he would have read them all and added to his collection. He was an educated man, a very thoughtful man.

“He was sitting in his favorite chair, reading David McCullough’s biography of John Adams. Prentice derived great pleasure from reading. He was more than halfway through. He never got to finish. He never will get to finish.

“Prentice Caldwell was a very wealthy man. He was a caring man. He gave generously of his money and his time to people and organizations in need. He supported Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He gave generously to Make-a-Wish. Those organizations that interrupt your dinner looking for money didn’t need to call Prentice. He helped them all.”

“He didn’t flaunt his wealth. If you stood beside him at a street corner waiting for a light to change, you would have had no idea he was one of the most prominent men in the area. He was well liked and had much more to offer our Philadelphia community.

“At approximately eight o’clock, someone went to Prentice and Priscilla Caldwell’s bedroom, put on a pair of winter gloves, removed this nine millimeter Beretta from the nightstand and walked down the stairs to the first floor.

I turned and pointed at the defendant, my arm fully extended. “That person was Priscilla Caldwell.”

“She walked into the study and removed this throw pillow from the sofa. She then walked to the chair where Prentice Caldwell was sitting, raised the pillow in front of the muzzle of the gun, like this, and fired a single shot into the back of his head, killing him. She dropped the pillow,” I dropped the pillow, “wiped the gun clean of prints, perhaps with her dress, and dropped the Beretta on the floor where she stood.”

I dropped the Beretta on the floor where I stood.

“She removed the gloves and dropped them as well.

“She then went up the stairs to the second floor master bathroom, removed her dress and dropped it down the laundry chute. She showered, dressed, and left the house. When she fired the fatal shot she was wearing a long-sleeved, black dress, Commonwealth Eight, which we know because there was gunshot residue on the right sleeve.

“The Assistant Medical Examiner told you the time of death was between seven thirty and eight thirty p.m. He told you the position of the body indicated Mr. Caldwell was unconcerned with whoever was in the house and what she was doing. He knew and trusted his killer.

“The housekeeper testified she called 911 when she returned from the movies. You heard others testify she was with them at the time of the murder.

“The alarm company testified the alarm had not been tampered with, yet they received no signal of any unauthorized entry or movement. The killer had to know the alarm code or had to have been let in or owned the house.

“The killer knew the location of the murder weapon.

“The killer knew about the laundry chute in the master bathroom.

“No unidentified fingerprints were found on Prentice Caldwell’s night table where the gun was stored.

“And where was Mrs. Caldwell when the killer was doing all this?” I shrugged and raised my palms upward.

“She offered no alibi.

“Finally, Melanie Chambers has admitted to having a sexual relationship with Prentice Caldwell. We must infer that this relationship did not make Priscilla very happy.”

I know. “Must infer” overstates the significance of this evidence. But I am the prosecutor. While the vast majority of things in life can best be interpreted by applying, “It depends on how you look at it,” I’m not about to suggest this jury has any choice other than to convict.

I should not have referred to the defendant as Priscilla especially in juxtaposition to using both names for Melanie and Prentice. But using her first name diminished her stature.

“We have shown you her motive. We have shown you the means. We have shown you how difficult it would have been for anyone else to have had that opportunity.”

I walked slowly up to the rail of the jury box. I leaned on the rail with both hands and bent slightly toward them to suggest even more intimacy than we had already shared.

I looked each of them in the eye. From the start, my tone had been conversational and personal, as if these jurors were friends sitting in my living room discussing whether the Eagles were going to have a successful season.

“You would be entirely reasonable to find that Priscilla Caldwell murdered her husband as I have described. I don’t think you can find any reasonable doubt of that on the evidence that has been presented.

“On that evening, Prentice Caldwell was cheated out of the rest of the life he had coming to him. His library will never grow to include all those books he would have read and enjoyed. Never again will he have the satisfaction of helping all those people in need as he did so often in the past. Never again will he have the chance to share his wisdom and his judgment with high officials in city government.

“These and countless other things were taken away by the actions of the defendant.” I turned and pointed at her.

“The killer is Priscilla Caldwell. You owe it to Prentice Caldwell to hold her accountable for all she has taken away from him, from us.

“Let me sweeten the deal. If you can wrap this up with a guilty plea before the weekend, you’re all invited to a barbecue at my place on Saturday. I’ll provide the food and drink, even the entertainment. So let’s get this over with and move on with our lives.”

I have somewhat of a reputation for pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable, of what is legal. That’s not what I’m trying to do. What I’m doing is questioning the common understanding, the way “it’s” done, whether that’s really the way it is. Just because something has come to be accepted doesn’t mean it ought to be accepted.

My barbecue invitation to the jury was a fantasy. Of course I didn’t say it. The judge would have found me in contempt and I could have waited in jail for the Disciplinary Board to make an example of me.

But why should they? Would it be a far cry from the pandering I did to the jury’s emotions sandwiched around the logical reasons they should convict?

Though it made me uncomfortable to resort to such tactics, the research is very clear: the impressions made by the attorneys and the witnesses often weigh more heavily in the minds of the jury than the evidence.

It did not make me uncomfortable enough to risk their letting guilty people go free because I didn’t take advantage of tactics which had no evidentiary value whatsoever.

“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, for your attention and for your service to the community. I’m sure Prentice Caldwell would thank you if he could. Service to the community was a hallmark of his life.”

I was conversational and personable, without a hint of histrionics.

On TV you see the prosecutor pounding his fist as he passionately demands justice for those who can no longer speak. Real juries have been questioned and the results are unequivocal: the more you carry on, the less they trust you.

Judge Minor charged them on the law applicable to the issues and off they went to deliberate.

I walked out into the corridor of the Criminal Justice Center. The hallway had a stately look of marble, and conveyed the impression that this was a place where great things were to be done. There were somber quotations on the walls. The atmosphere was one of solemnity. It said we took the legal system very seriously.

That might have been the perception before the O.J. case let the public in on our dirty little secret: everything is not as precise and just in our system of justice as they had supposed.

There was a sticky note on my office door instructing me to see the District Attorney. I’d never been summoned directly from a trial. It was disquieting.

I plucked it off and headed for her office.

 

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  Chapter 13  

  Chapter 14  

  Chapter 15  

  Chapter 16  

  Chapter 17  

  Chapter 18  

  Chapter 19  

  Chapter 20  

  Chapter 21  

  Chapter 22  

  Chapter 23