Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A Montana Story I Can Relate To

I hate to regurgitate stories produced in the Billings Gazette or any other paper for that matter but some of them are so darn funny I simply cannot help myself. Did you happen to catch the headline pertaining to the stabbing in Winnett and the subsequent judicial complexities involved in finding a jury from Petroleum County? Besides being the least populated county in Montana it would seem to me impossible for an attorney to ask a potential juror if he or she had heard or talked about the case in question. Are you kidding me? No sir, no maam, I didn't hear a thing about it. Come on, 85% of the potential jurors probably passed through the doors of the business where the alleged crime took place only hours after the assault. The motive for the crime is understandable and passionate. Apparently two men argued over the population of the sparse and lonely frontier town, disagreed, and the victim simply had to pay for his transgression. Why this hot-button issue of rural population controversy failed to grace the front page of the New York Times simply befuddles me. At any rate, the restaurant district in Winnett with its usual bustling population of 100, (this census figure arguably contains some pets with given Christian names) hardly resembles the million dollar mile and choices in eating and drinking establishments is somewhat limited. Yeah, no kidding the jury pool was well aware of the crime. The switchboard operator in Petroleum County probably felt the ill effects of carpal tunnel the night of the crime due to multiple calls from town to ranch and ranch to ranch.

This jury selection process nearly crippled the infrastructure and all economic activity for at least a day or two. A majority (meaning at least two) of the bus drivers reported for jury duty threatening educational chaos if not released from service by 3:30 p.m. United States mail delivery also nearly collapsed when the regular and relief mail carriers were called upon to serve the interests of local justice. A rancher and his wife (also a rancher by marriage and implication) were called and one excused so as not to threaten the livelihood of the cattle. One married couple told the prosecutor and the defense attorney they would have no trouble standing up to each other if they disagreed during deliberations. I think justice can latch onto something here. My wife would love to be on a jury with me and question everything I said all the while damning me with impunity. Maybe all juries consisting of husbands and wives would even the odds for the defendant in capital cases. The judge dismissed another potential juror, a Labrador retriever, for disrupting the proceedings with loud barks as a tabby walked on the window sill outside the courtroom. The dog also walked by the defendant and wagged his tail as witnesses testified the defendant slipped the lab a treat.

The people in Petroleum County are just like a lot of other people in rural America. It seems to me the fuss and budgeting of finding an "untainted" jury pool is sometimes overrated. Most of the jurors would weigh the evidence and decide accordingly even if they knew, were related to, or once dated the defendant. That is just the Montana way. If the system remained paranoid they could've moved the trial to Jordan or Lewistown. It just seems kind of funny that an odd event in the most unlikely of places nearly caused collapse in the criminal justice system. Perhaps the story will boost tourism to the area but I have a hunch most residents there could care less if it did or not.

1 comment:

Shane C. Mason said...

Nice piece. I think that I agree that it is likely that 'untainted' juries are over rated.