remembering a writer and friend
I would encourage any and all of Don’s friends and supporters to attend the trial this week, in room 313 of the Hall of Justice, at 7th and College. Opening arguments begin tomorrow (Tuesday) at 8:30 a.m.
According to the prosecution they expect to wrap up their side of the case by Wednesday (!!), so this entire trial could be done within the blink of an eye. It is important for community members to bear witness and be there on behalf of Don. We cannot rely upon local media to accurately report everything or to pick up on some of the nuances of minority life in a small Midwestern town. Somebody has to be there to record what is happening as our friend and colleague is spoken about.
Notes from a couple hours of jury selection are below. I think it’s important to have a record of the things that are said and done in the name of justice in this trial. It’s important for Don –and for everything that he was. And it’s important for the world at large—people are watching us, and how we react to this case will make a huge difference in the lives of many people.
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During his questioning of jurors, defense attorney David Collins wanted jurors to understand that he was not disputing the fact that Michael Griffin stabbed Donald Belton to death. But he did want to emphasize that certain factors meant that this killing could mean manslaughter instead of murder. Early on this became a point of contention with Judge Harper. The judge told Collins that she would *not* allow him to raise specific criminal defenses that may not even be available to the defendant and which would not be clear until evidence was presented. So Collins raised the issue as a ‘concept’ – telling jurors that if he raised an additional issue then the burden was on the state to disprove that issue beyond a reasonable doubt.
Collins wanted jurors to understand that killing is not always murder. “What is murder?” he wanted to know—and most jurors said an element of premeditation or intent was involved.
In fact that is *not* Indiana law, the prosecution later made clear, pointing out that certain things have to be proven to get a murder conviction, but premeditation or intent is not a part of that.
“When is killing not murder?” Collins asked the jurors, and many responded that a crime of self defense, or perhaps rage, *could* convince them to convict on lesser charges. Special cases aside,”Are any of our soldiers in Iraq being charged with murder?” Collins asked one juror. “No? Why not?”
“Because that’s what they’re expected to do,” the juror responded.
Collins raised other hypotheticals–What about if a spouse comes home and says, ‘honey I’m home’ and finds the spouse in bed with another person? What about if a guy walks into a bar, [insults] another guy, and the insulted guy takes a swing and kills the person? What if that insulted guy had a long history of being insulted and it was a sore spot and he just snapped? What if a young woman drinks too much, asks her guy friend for a ride home, and he thinks, ‘I’ve always wanted to have my way with her..now is my chance’. He sexually assaults her while she is too drunk to do anything about it, and when she confronts him about it later he laughs and says ‘You liked it’. If she kills him–is it murder?
Collins asked jurors to imagine that it was their family member on trial—wouldn’t they want to deliver a fair and impartial verdict? The prosecution then reminded jurors that if their family member was on trial they wouldn’t be seated on the jury and their verdict wouldn’t be impartial.
Collins also asked the jury to define their version of “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Many at first said “100 percent sure” of something, to which the prosecution again stepped in to respond that is *not* the definition.
At one point, Collins actually produced grisly photos of Don Belton’s body, in an attempt to gauge juror reaction to the images. The prosecution objected and the judge admonished him for introducing evidence during the jury selection process. The parties approached the bench, where Collins argued that he had to know now how jurors would react to the photos. It was again repeated that he could not show them. As he walked away from the bench he nevertheless held the photo outward facing the jury box; this was the first time I caught glimpse of it as he put it away in the envelope.
The prosecution did raise the issue of Don Belton’s sexuality in order to gauge any potential bias. But the questions were fairly simplistic, not really testing the idea that an ‘unwanted sexual advance’ by a gay person would of course result in violence, which appears to be the crux of the defense’s case even if not overtly just yet.
Also surprising–the prosecutor used the word “Lifestyle” to describe homosexuality. Anyone trained in diversity would know that such a word is loaded with baggage, often used by anti-gay groups to promote stereotypes and conjure up images of a universal gay behavior centered around reckless sex. there’s no way to use this word impartially, without evoking an image or a judgement.
“Even if it’s not necessarily a lifestyle you would choose for yourself..” the prosecutor asked jurors, did they have problems with homosexuality or did they understand that homosexuals have equal protection under the law.
It seems that if the prosecution doesn’t want the jury to have anti-gay bias, then using ‘lifestyle’ is not a good choice of words, unless there is a strategy there I’m not seeing.
Each side was given a couple of strikes during each round of questioning. By 3 pm, six people had been seated. An hour and a half later another six plus two alternates were chosen.
Dismissed include: the older lady who said ‘it’s a tragedy either way’; the man who stammered uncomfortably when he said he knew some gay people; the lady who said Collins made her feel like she was on trial herself; the lady who said she was on a death penalty case in the 1980s and did not want to go through that again. Most jurors present said they very much wanted to be there.
By my initial count it seems that
4 men and 8 women* are on the jury, with 2 male alternates. It is not visibly apparent that there are any people of color on the jury, but that could be incorrect. And my gaydar is broken.
* Other media outlets report 5 men and 7 women on the jury. One of those butches must have been a man after all. I told you my gaydar was broken.