The recent jury verdict in the Coach Jim Donnan trial surprised me. I thought the jury would find him guilty. That’s because, unlike the jury, I never heard all of the evidence admitted in court. All I heard was the media’s spin on things, which led me, without a doubt in my mind, to believe the jury would convict him.
Not so fast.
Remember innocent until proven guilty? Well, the State of Georgia just never made it that far in this trial. The jury foreman said:
“The government didn’t have enough evidence to support the charges,” said Ricks, who stopped to talk to reporters afterward. “I never did see that smoking gun that proved guilt,” added Ricks, 55, who works in the meat department of a Hartwell grocery store. “I just kept thinking day after day the government was going to produce a smoking gun, but I never saw one.”
That was in the first newspaper article after the acquittal. The media accounts before and during the trial would have led you to believe the State could phone this one in…that the trial was just a technicality to obtain a conviction, that Coach Donnan was all but already convicted in the Court of Public Opinion. After all, they “had him” on 41 counts! Remember the Queen in “Alice in Wonderland who shrieked “Sentence first, verdict afterward!” Evidence, however, comes either from documents admitted into evidence by the judge at trial or from testimony of live witnesses, real walking around people, sitting in the witness stand before the jury. Evidence does not come from a reporter with a deadline to meet, or a blogger/pontificater who thinks he knows what a jury will do (even though he, of course, hasn’t spent the first minute in the courtroom) or from a talking head on Headline News who must fill a 60 minute TV show every night, come hell or highwater.
Coach Donnan had passed on the State’s offer of a plea bargain, which would have required that he serve some time in prison. Talk about high stakes! Coach Donnan’s refusal to accept the plea bargain shows his complete confidence in our criminal justice system, in the power of the American jury to hear and weigh the evidence at trial thoughtfully and carefully, the desire of the jury to get it right and hold the State to it’s high burden of proving guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt and simply faith in the system that justice would be done. Bravo! Many commentators have called the acquittal Donnan’s biggest victory ever in Athens. Scott Michaux of the Augusta Chronicle eloquently said “no game-winning kick, Hail Mary pass or other climactic moment on a football field compared listening to the judge say the words “not guilty” with his freedom in the balance.”
But the biggest lesson learned from the Donnan trial is that we have an independent judiciary and an independent jury, who, through their collective experience, wisdom and conscience, determines whether a man’s liberty should be taken away from him based on whether the Government has done its job. The Donnan jury obviously thought the Government had not.
Hats off to the American Jury! It is the greatest form of small self-government ever created.
Robin Frazer Clark pursues justice for those who have personal injury claims as a result of being injured in motor vehicle wrecks, trucking wrecks, defective products, defective maintenance of roads, medical malpractice and other incidents caused by the negligence of others. Ms. Clark is the Past President of the State Bar of Georgia and the Past President of Georgia Trial Lawyers Association and has practiced law in Georgia for 26 years. Mrs. Clark is listed as one of the Top 50 Women Trial Lawyers in Georgia and is a Georgia Super Lawyer.