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While agonizing for the Sager family, reversal of Basil murder conviction was appropriate

The family and friends of William C. Sager Jr. have been dealt a year of agony. First was the attack on the Air National Guardsman in Molly’s Pub, and his resulting death. Then they had to relive it all in the murder trial of Jeffrey J. Basil.

The only relief came with Basil’s jury conviction in January, and even that was short-lived, as questions arose about the fairness of the trial. Those questions were resolved Tuesday, when State Supreme Court Justice Penny M. Wolfgang vacated the verdict.

It has to be a kick in the stomach, but for all the suffering it causes Sager’s family, it was a defensible decision. Serious questions arose whether Basil received the due process to which he is constitutionally entitled. Perhaps another judge would have ruled differently, but her decision is grounded in facts that Wolfgang’s critics are honor-bound to acknowledge.

Had she ruled otherwise, she might well have later been accused – and rightfully so – of kicking a difficult decision to appellate court judges who would likely have vacated the guilty verdict, anyway. Wolfgang is paid to make difficult decisions and there is a fair argument that she made the right one, painful though it is.

The conviction started coming apart almost immediately. In an interview with Channel 7 a day after the verdict, a woman known only as Juror No. 12 acknowledged her previous military service. She said she was especially affected by the testimony of one of Sager’s military friends, who testified that he was trained “to never leave a wingman behind.”

The juror has said that while other prospective jurors were asked about military service, she was not. She should have offered that information, anyway – possibly preserving the conviction – but the bigger fault lies with the prosecuting and especially the defense attorneys. If they didn’t ask the question, then they share blame for the outcome.

More troubling, though – and harder to explain away – is the juror’s claim that she had never been arrested. In fact, she had been charged with grand theft in Florida. The case was never prosecuted, which defense lawyers contended could have biased her toward the prosecution in the Basil trial. Wolfgang said the juror’s later testimony that she had forgotten about the arrest wasn’t credible. That’s putting it mildly. The only people who could forget an arrest are those with too many to keep track of.

None of this necessarily prejudiced the juror against Basil. She claims she was among three jurors who initially voted to acquit him. But, criminal defendants are entitled to a fair trial with an appropriately selected jury.

Now it’s up to District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III to decide how to proceed. The only real choices are a retrial or plea bargain that puts Basil away, probably for some lesser period than the 25 years to life he could have been sentenced to had the conviction stuck. The former approach carries a risk – albeit a seemingly minor one – that Basil could be acquitted, while the latter could weigh heavily on the Sager family, for whom justice is the only salve.

It is insufficient to the family’s continued suffering to note that the system cannot guarantee perfect justice or even justice at all. It offers the opportunity for it, but only when judges, lawyers and jurors do their jobs properly. Justice still may come in this matter, but no one got it in the proceeding at hand.