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When Prosecutors Have Reasonable Doubt


Tuesday, Sep. 10, 2002

On November 26th of last year, someone took a baseball bat and bludgeoned Terry King to death. Three defendants were later charged with first-degree murder. One was Ricky Chavis, a forty-year-old neighbor of the victim and a convicted child molester. Also charged with the homicide were the victim's two sons, Alex and Derek King, who were twelve and thirteen years old at the time of the murder.

Many people wondered how the State Attorney's Office could try different sets of defendants for the same crime. Guilty verdicts in both trials would appear to be inconsistent.

Prosecuting several people for one murder doesn't always raise ethical questions. After all, two or more people can jointly plan and carry out a crime. And when they do that, a prosecutor may - in good faith - try all of the perpetrators, either separately or together.

But that was not the story of the Terry King murder case. In trying both his sons, Alex and Derek, and his neighbor, Ricky Chavis, the prosecutor offered two inherently irreconcilable theories of what happened to Terry King.

Irreconcilable Theories of Guilt

During Ricky Chavis's trial, just a few weeks ago, Florida prosecutor David Rimmer called Alex and Derek King as witnesses to testify that they did not kill their father, and that Ricky Chavis - the real killer - persuaded them to confess falsely, shortly after the crime.

But then Rimmer, the same prosecutor, tried the boys for murder, without withdrawing or otherwise repudiating his prosecution of Chavis. The theory of the second trial was that one brother successfully convinced the other to beat their father to death. By asking for convictions, Rimmer implicitly conceded that the boys' testimony at the Chavis trial amounted to perjury. Alternatively, Rimmer could assert, the boys told the truth at the earlier trial. But in that case, the prosecutor has asked jurors in the second trial to believe the defendants' false confessions.

Either way, the State of Florida deliberately presented one jury or the other with evidence that the prosecution itself considered false.

Letting the Juries Sort it Out

There is a third possibility. Maybe prosecutors simply did not know who killed Terry King. Perhaps they were convinced that it was either Chavis or the victim's children, but beyond that, they could not be sure. The Florida State Attorney's Office may have hoped that the two juries, after hearing the evidence, would sort it all out and choose the correct culprit. As prosecutor David Rimmer said to the Chavis jury in closing, "I'm going to let you decide. I don't have a dog in this fight." That appears, in fact, to have happened: Alex and Derek King were convicted of second-degree murder on Friday, and Chavis was acquitted.

But a prosecutor who asks two juries to figure things out behaves irresponsibly. By prosecuting all three defendants, David Rimmer implicitly asserted that each one was guilty beyond any reasonable doubt, even while Rimmer himself entertained enough doubt to charge completely different sets of people with carrying out the very same acts.

The Meaning of Reasonable Doubt

The reasonable doubt instruction demands that a jury acquit a defendant if, after hearing and evaluating all of the evidence at trial, the jury can come up with a reasonable alternative scenario in which the defendant is not guilty. By simultaneously planning and maintaining two incompatible prosecutions, as the State Attorney's office did in Florida, the prosecution essentially admitted that it harbored a reasonable doubt as to the guilt of each defendant. Under these circumstances, it should not have prosecuted any of them.

Sherry F. Colb, a FindLaw columnist, is a Professor at Rutgers Law School in Newark. Her other columns on criminal law issues, and other topics, can be found in the archive of her columns on this site.

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