Beyond reasonable doubt…

Jul. 30, 2014 @ 06:34 PM

Anyone even casually following the first-degree murder trial of Laurence Lovette in a Durham County courtroom the past 10 days must have gotten an inescapable impression:

Laurence Lovette is no nice guy.

Lovette, witnesses testified, seized Abhijit Mahato in the parking lot of Mahato’s quiet apartment complex on Anderson Street near Chapel Hill Road. Lovette took Mahato to an ATM machine, forced him to withdraw $520, and then took him back to the apartments.

There, according to testimony, he put a pillow over the Duke University graduate engineering student’s face and fatally shot him.

To most observers, the defendant must have seemed the “cold-blooded killer” portrayed by the prosecution.

But a jury of 12 conscientious Durham citizens thought otherwise.

Following the testimony closely, deliberating for more than a day, those jurors concluded that the district attorney’s office had failed to prove Lovette’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

That is the standard they were bound – by our legal system and by the philosophy that underlies it – to apply.

It is hard for most of us watching this trial not to ignore the shadow of Eve Carson’s murder hanging over it. Lovette was convicted of brutally killing the UNC-Chapel Hill student body president just days after Mahato’s death.  The horror of that killing is hard to forget when considering the death of another young student whose life was violently cut short.

But that was not the case for which Lovette was tried this month, and its circumstances were not for this jury to consider.

Surely, we have had enough instances, including right here, in recent years of people wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit. The principle behind our strict “reasonable doubt” standard was expressed by 18th-century Brithish jurist William Blackstone: “It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

That is a maxim assuredly hard for family and friends of a slain young man to accept. We should not ask that of them; they are free to be angry and appalled.

And it is hard to take for anyone who may look at this trial and wonder if justice truly was done. It is perhaps impossible not to form an opinion shaped by emotion and our own glimpse of courtroom evidence.

It was a difficult decision, evidently, for the jury. At least one juror indicated they initially were inclined toward conviction. Anguish was evident on their faces as the verdict was announced.

But it was the decision our judicial system tasked them with making.  They were in the end unconvinced of his guilt, and convincing them was the state’s task.

Our judicial system is far from perfect. It has had its lapses, some memorably tragic, but it by and large has served us well.

There’s no indication any player on this stage – prosecution, defense, judge, jury – acted with anything but integrity and his or her very best effort.

In the end, 12 men and women had a reasonable doubt.

And, as we asked them to, they went with it.