By Dennis C. Vacco
The criminal justice system is facing increased scrutiny. From Ferguson, Mo., to Baltimore, the conduct of police officers and decisions of prosecutors have been the subject of intense debate and criticism. In many communities, the public’s confidence in the system has been shattered. This week, that intense scrutiny is focused on a controversial ruling in Buffalo.
On May 5, State Supreme Court Justice Penny M. Wolfgang set aside the conviction of Jeffrey Basil, who had been convicted of murdering William Sager when Basil pushed Sager down a flight of stairs in Molly’s Pub last May. The ruling, while perhaps not popular, was the correct one.
Wolfgang’s decision to overturn the verdict was based on the fact that Juror No. 12 failed to disclose her military background and answered that she was never accused of a crime, despite at least one felony charged lodged against her in the 1990s. This juror tainted the entire trial process and ultimately the jury’s verdict, thereby denying Basil a fair trial.
Achieving justice in any case is not a simple task and is often more difficult when a crime has the public’s attention. In the end, while a sense of justice is important for the participants in a criminal case, it is far more important that the public at large believes that justice was delivered.
In order for the public’s confidence in the justice system to remain high, the system and all of the various participants must constantly exhibit integrity.
The police officer making the arrest, the prosecutor who presents the evidence, witnesses who testify, judges and jurors all must act with integrity. When one participant compromises her integrity, the entire judicial process is in jeopardy.
If a juror provides false answers to questions posed to her during jury selection, the negative consequence to the justice system is the same as if a police officer lies, makes a false report, or plants evidence. In both instances, the process is tainted because a key player lacked integrity.
Some in our community have said that the justice system failed. I strongly disagree. I believe the justice system worked. It was more important for Wolfgang to protect the integrity of the system than Basil’s conviction.
In this case, Basil’s actions were despicable, but the egregious nature of his conduct should not excuse a verdict that was tainted by the actions of a single juror.
Fortunately, the district attorney can retry this case. I hope that whatever the outcome in this case, our community can feel confident that justice was served.
Dennis C. Vacco was attorney general of New York and U.S. attorney for the Western District of New York. He is now a partner at Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman LLP in Buffalo.