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The Roderick Scott Decision: Jury Has the Last Word (and it's "Not Guilty")
Rochester, NY (December 21, 2009) -- Late Friday evening, a Monroe County jury reached a unanimous verdict in the trial of Roderick Scott: not guilty of manslaughter in the first degree. Scott had gunned down a teenage hoodlum who had been breaking into cars in his neighborhood. The prosecution portrayed it as an act of vigilante behavior run amok; Scott and his defense team presented the incident as the unfortunate result of reasonable behavior by a concerned citizen paired with the foolishness of a teenager under the influence of alcohol, drugs and bad peers.

Should this case have even gone to a jury?
One question raised by this story is whether District Attorney Michael Green and his team made the correct decision to prosecute. Some experts insist that prosecutors should stick to airtight cases, ones where a conviction is all but certain. The Scott case was anything but certain: it occurred in the dead of night, under poorly lit conditions with no objective witnesses (Scott testified on his own behalf, the victim's cousin recounted events from his perspective -- he was one of the alleged thieves).

In this case, there was a legitimate issue to be resolved, one that can only be answered with finality through a formal legal process and a jury decision. That is, was Scott's confronting burglars with his firearm a legitimate action and was his discharge of that firearm done under a reasonable belief that his life was in danger?

These sorts of issues are not clearcut. They test the definitions of "common sense" and "reasonable person." These are precisely the types of cases that benefit from the jury deliberation process. DA Green might have been concerned about whether this case was winnable, but by letting a jury of Scott's peers judge his actions, Green made a wise decision: he returned the implementation of law to the people.

Did Scott have any business being outside at 3:30 am with his gun?
One of the key questions for the jury to decide is whether Scott's decisions met a legal standard of reasonableness. In this case, there were two such questions to answer. The first: would a reasonable person confront a group of teenagers, as Scott did, by bringing his gun with him and attempting to hold them at gunpoint in a neighbor's driveway waiting for the police?

The prosecution asked Scott this question directly. His response likely shut down this line of questioning -- it was that good. Asked if it is the police's job to confront suspects in crimes -- implying that he had overstepped his bounds as a citizen -- Scott replied that it is every citizen's job to attempt to thwart criminal activity. In Scott's case, he had three alternatives he could have pursued:

1. Call police and wait. Most citizens would have done this -- no one would have condemned him for this choice-- but it likely would have meant the teens would escape.
2. Confront the teens from afar (from a safe distance, such as his window). Again, a reasonable choice that some citizens would have followed, but at the fist shout of "hey!" to the teens, they would have scattered -- long before police would arrive on scene.
3. Confront the teens from a closer distance, having a weapon at hand in the event they might be armed (Scott did not know if they were armed or not). The jury determined that this was also a reasonable option, albeit one that not many citizens would pursue.

Scott's decision to take option #3 might be unusual for the average citizen, but it is also something that the average citizen probably appreciates very much. Recall that Scott could not have known what situation he was entering. Would the group turn on him, attack him? Were they armed? Scott accepted this risk. There was no concrete evidence that suggested he did so recklessly or with any intent whatsoever to hurt anyone.

Constitutional law experts observe that case law supports the use of lethal force to defend oneself, but does is not justified to prevent the theft of someone else's property. Some observers of the Scott case claimed that this is the point where Scott ran afoul of the law: if lethal force is not justified for the defense of others' property, Scott had no business packing his sidearm that early morning.

This raises the trial's key question:

Was the shooting of Chris Cervini by Roderick Scott truly an act of self-defense?
For Scott to claim self-defense, he had to believe that his life was in danger and that he had no other means of retreat. In other words, even if Scott feared for his life, he also had to prove that shooting his would-be attacker was the only means of his escape.

The prosecution argued that forensic evidence showed that the fatal bullet was fired into the victim's back -- a difficult fact to square with the defense argument of self-defense. But the prosecution erred significantly in this claim: they could not prove which bullet was fired first, the bullet that entered the victim's back or the bullet that passed through his hand and then into his chest. While the prosecution argued reasonably that the victim was shot first in the back, then, while his hand was raised to his chest to cover the exit wound, was shot again, the defense argued -- equally reasonably -- that the first bullet entered the victim's chest, causing him to wheel around, just in time for the second bullet to enter his rear armpit.

Because neither scenario could shown to be definitively true or false, the jury had to accept that both were plausible -- not a good situation if the standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt" is to be applied for a guilty verdict. Was Scott acting as a reasonable person when, after he declared his arms and demanded the youth not move, he fired when one moved towards him, allegedly saying "I'll get him" or "I'll get you"? Seemingly, or so the jury decided, in any event.

What role might race have played?
Had this same series of events occurred with a different cast of characters, could we expect the public and, more important, the jury, to treat the actors the same way? In this case, Scott was an African American man, his victim a white teenaged male. Had the race of these two been reversed -- a white man shooting an African American youth -- would the trial have received more attention? Would motives have been scrutinized more closely? Would conservative commentators rallied to the shooter's defense (because you know how criminally-inclined those youth are...)? Would activists have championed the cause of the victim as yet another casualty of stereotypes and bigotry? Difficult to say, but all fair questions to ask. Perhaps this community was lucky, in a way, that the characters were cast as they were.

In this case, the jury appeared to deliberate on the facts of the case -- something juries of the past (think all-white juries in the Old South) could not always be trusted to do. It's true that you cannot always trust the average man to render sound judgment, but twelve people, with a better than even chance of making the right call individually, will actually do a fairly good job as a group.

Conclusion: Justice served, but at a tremendous price
A man who appears not to be a threat to society has been spared a five to twenty-five year (mandatory) sentence and a criminal record. The principle of law being applied by a jury of one's peers was upheld. But a young man died needlessly. Justice may have been served, but an air of tragedy lingers. Had some young men made some different decisions -- like staying in bed and sleeping at 3:30 am -- this sad event never would have occurred. And sad as that is, it bears noting that Roderick Scott, for all his relief, still carries with him, for the rest of his life, the fact that he ended a young man's life.

For those who advocate the right to bear arms, this case serves as an excellent cautionary tale. Yes, in some cases, guns might save lives, might prevent crimes. But putting oneself in the shoes of Roderick Scott, one might think twice about his choice. The average person's conscience can probably bear the thought of seeing youth escape from police for petty theft; bearing the weight of causing a young man's death? God help Roderick Scott. He will certainly need it.

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