U.S. Jury System Consistently Works

What happens when a jury finds a defendant, who is the only suspect, not guilty of a brutal murder? No, this is not a column about the O. J. Simpson trial. This happened last month in Montgomery County Circuit Court. In Judge Sally Greenhaw’s court, a sitting jury found Richard Lee Steele not guilty of murdering Charles Minch. Mr. Steele had been charged with the January 1994 murder of the 85 year old, retired architect. The verdict creates a dilemma for Montgomery Police who are responsible for investigating and solving this murder.

Authorities are pondering the unpleasant choice between reopening the case and looking for another suspect, or allowing the case to remain closed. Either choice affirms what many critics of the criminal justice system have long argued, “the system is flawed.”

If authorities reopen the case and initiate a new investigation, it says police investigators made a mistake … they accused the wrong man. Meanwhile, the real murderer has had a year and seven months to cover the trail. Police investigators will surely experience difficulty trying to gather evidence and develop leads on the real killer.

Speaking for the Montgomery Police Homicide Division, Major Hicks, Division Commander, said that Richard Steele was their only suspect in this case. He said the department presently has no plans to re-open the Minch case, but they will look at any new evidence that turns up.

With respect to the other half of their dilemma, authorities could allow the case to remain closed and not actively pursue other suspects. This choice implies that there are no other suspects and would reinforce several myths. One is the myth of the smart lawyer who gets his or her client off with a legal technicality, in the face of convincing evidence of guilt. Another is the mythical lawyer who convinces the jury that his client is not guilty based solely upon his superior courtroom decorum. There are other myths surrounding our criminal justice system. Some people believe politics, race, religion, social standing and wealth all play a not-so-innocent role in our system of justice.

In the Minch case, none of the myths seem to apply. Julian McPhillips and Bill Honey, Mr. Steele’s court-appointed lawyers, successfully defended him by demonstrating to the jury the weakness of the evidence in the case. Mr. McPhillips says that Richard Steele owes his life, not to them, but to an honest jury. Both, Mr. McPhillips and Mr. Honey credit the jury with great courage in reaching a not guilty verdict. The jury could not find Mr. Steele guilty and under our legal system, once a person is tried for a crime and found not guilty, the constitution prevents that person from being tried again.

A juror in the case, Jane Ferguson, described how they agonized over the issues. Speaking for this column, Mrs. Ferguson said, “serving as a juror on this case really strengthened my belief in the justice process.” She said that without exception “each juror wanted to do the right thing.” With the victim’s family present during the trial, there was great pressure to bring closure, she said, but the evidence presented was not sufficient to convict Mr. Steele of Charles Minch’s murder.

Evidence of the victim’s use of cocaine within 8 to 12 hours prior to his death, was essentially unexplained. This drug use was an issue in a three page letter dated October 13, 1994 to Montgomery Police Chief, John Wilson. In it, Mr. Steele’s lawyers argued unsuccessfully for police to reopen the Minch Murder Case. Attorneys McPhillips and Honey summarized their letter saying, “We can only conclude that failure to follow up these leads is based solely on a desire to convict Richard Lee Steele.”

Montgomery County Prosecutor, Ellen Brooks, speaking for this column, says her office presented evidence to the grand jury that indicted Mr. Steele for the murder of Charles Minch. She said they tried the case and the jury found Mr. Steele not guilty. “This does not mean he didn’t do it,” the prosecutor said.

Critics may continue to say the “system is flawed” because whoever murdered Charles Minch goes unpunished. But in the eyes of Richard Lee Steele, the justice system may not be perfect, but it is surely not flawed. This case is a paradigm of the way the framers of the constitution intended our justice system to work.

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Originally Published: 9 August 1995, Montgomery Advertiser

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