The Importance of the Presumption of Innocence

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Thursday, December 14th, 2017
The Importance of the Presumption of Innocence

Although Sam had been taken into custody well before noon, it was after six o’clock by the time his wife, Muriel, arrived at my office with Sam’s dad.

It had been after three o’clock before he completed the booking process and was allowed a phone call. He hadn’t wanted to worry Muriel and had tried to call his dad, but wasn’t able to reach him. By the time he convinced the guard to allow him another phone callit was nearly four.

He’d told Muriel not to worry, that it was all a big mistake, but of course she was very upset to hear that Sam was in jail. By the time she got to my office, her face was red and tear-stained.

She hadn’t known what to do, and it had taken her nearly an hour to find Sam’s father, Ben Minor; then he’d called the only lawyer he knew, a family lawyer who referred him to me. It was nearly 5:30 by the time the lawyer called me, asking me to wait for Ben and Muriel to come to my office. All they knew when they got there was that Sam had been charged with some sort of theft from the United States mail, and was in the County Jail. They were sure there was some mistake, because Sam just wasn’t the kind of man to do a thing like that.

There was nothing new about this scenario, of course. The families of most young men who find themselves afoul of the law begin by believing there has been some sort of mistake.

Unfortunately, however, it usually turns out that the mistake has been made by the one who finds himself in jail. By calling the booking desk at the jail, I was able to verify that he was, indeed, charged with mail theft, and bail had been set by the Federal magistrate at $200,000. Due to the hour, I was not able to learn anything more from official sources, all of whom had shut down for the day. I explained what little I could under the circumstances to Ben and Muriel, and promised to call them as soon as I’d had a chance to talk with Sam.

I went straight from the office to the jail. They brought Sam down from the Federal floor to the attorney conference room. I introduced myself, told him about his wife and father coming to see me and explained that I was there to do what I could to be of help.

He told me straight off that he had no idea why he was in jail, and that, like his wife and father, he was sure there had been some mistake made.

He was employed as an airline freight handler. He met all the flights for his airline, and picked up all the air freight and mail cargo. He would deliver the mail to the post office en route to the airline freight terminal from the flight line.

He’d met all the flights that morning, from the time his shift began at 5:00 a.m. until he’d been called into the boss’ office about ten o’clock.

He could sense that something was wrong when the boss walked out of the office as he walked in, leaving him alone with two men in suits.

They asked if he was Sam Minor and, when he said that he was, introduced themselves as agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They told him that they were investigating a theft from the United States mail.

He was about to tell them he’d be happy to help in any way he could when one of them cut him short, advising him that he was a suspect in the matter.

Sam had reacted incredulously, and the degree of his disbelief multiplied when the man began reading him his Miranda warnings: “You have the right to remain silent,” etc.

They then told him that a shipment consisting of two bread loaf–size wooden boxes containing solid gold jewelry had arrived via air mail that morning, but that only one of the two boxes had reached the post office.

They knew that only he had had access to the gold, knew from his boss that he had been at work all morning, and demanded to know where he had stashed the stolen gold.

Sam had insisted that he knew nothing about the missing gold. He remembered the two wooden boxes, he said, precisely because they were wooden; wooden boxes were unusual if for no other reason than that they added so much to the weight and thus the added cost of air mail postage. He’d had no idea they contained gold, he said, but was sure he had delivered both to the post office.

They simply were not buying that story, though, and a short time later advised Sam that he was under arrest (I later learned that another agent had by that time secured a warrant for Sam’s arrest). He’d been taken to jail, where the things I’ve already described had taken place.

Sam seemed particularly worried about Muriel, and how she was taking his arrest. He explained that she was 3½ months pregnant and had been having a difficult time of it. He was really worried that his arrest was going to cause her additional problems.

I didn’t know what to believe. I was just meeting Sam, knew nothing about him, and had no idea just what the government “had” on him.

He had just given me a motive, however. He had a pretty young pregnant wife who was having a troubled (translate “expensive”) pregnancy and was working in a relatively low-paying job with rather limited future prospects. Many a man has stolen for less cause.

I explained that I would get in touch with the United States Attorney’s office the next day to see what I could learn about the case. He said he’d be all right overnight, just tell Muriel and his dad not to be worried about him. I then realized just how little he understood of the situation he was in.

“You’re likely to be here a good deal longer than overnight,” I told him. Making a $200,000 bond would cost about $20,000, perhaps more, and neither he nor his father could afford any such sum.

Getting the bail reduced was going to require a hearing before the Federal Magistrate, and local rules entitled the U.S. Attorney to five working days’ notice before any such hearing could be held.

I was hopeful that we could arrange a more reasonable bail at such a hearing, but pointed out that five working days was a full week, and he was likely to be in jail at least that long.

It was at that point—when the only one he’d talked to all day who was trying to help him told him that he was about to spend at least a week in jail—that the enormity of the situation really completely sank in.

Tears welled up in his eyes as he protested: “But Mr. Priest, I swear to you, I’m not guilty. I don’t know nothing about that gold.”

I promised to come back the next day, after talking to the U.S. Attorney, and tell him what I’d learned.

I went home, called Muriel, and gave her and Ben a report, explained that I’d see the prosecutor the next day, and promised to get back with them after doing so.

The next morning I called the U.S. Attorney’s office and was advised that the case had been assigned to Ray Jahn, an experienced AUSA (Assistant United States Attorney) with whom I had previously dealt on a number of occasions. Ray was a good prosecutor—tough but fair. Unfortunately, on that particular morning he was out of the office—he’d gone to Austin on something or the other.

I left word for Ray that I would be representing Sam, and asked that he call me as soon as he got back in town. He in fact got back with me later that morning from Austin.

“Pat,” he said, “I understand that you represent that kid, Sam Minor.”

I acknowledged that I did, and thanked him for calling. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “I’m feeling like Santa Claus. Just tell him that if he’ll give the gold back I’ll let him have pretrial diversion.”

That was very good news. Ray was giving the young man a chance to walk away from this entire matter—without a prosecution, not merely without a conviction. All he had to do was tell where the gold was and he’d be “on the ground” by nightfall, with no other obligation than to attend three or four lectures on the general subject of Thou Shalt Not Steal.

“Thanks, Ray. I’ll go talk with him right away,” I said, “but I’ve gotta tell you, so far he’s telling me he knows nothing about it.”

“Right,” said Ray, “knows nothing about it. Well, just tell him this offer’s only good for 24 hours.”

I wasn’t able to get back to the jail to see Sam until after 5:00 that day (Perry Mason is absolutely the only lawyer there is who handles only one case at a time). I must’ve had a big smile on my face there in the conference room, though, as I could see Sam’s face light up when he saw mine, clearly sensing that I had good news.

“Sam,” I said, “you are a lucky devil! The prosecutor’s willing to let you off with pretrial diversion if you’ll just return the gold.”

He didn’t understand what I was talking about, he said, and would I explain what I meant?

I explained what pretrial diversion meant, that he’d just have to go to three or four counseling classes and the entire matter would be dropped. All we had to do was tell the FBI where the gold was.

Sam sat there for a good long while with his head bowed, obviously letting what I had told him sink in and giving it thought.

At last, his head came up and his eyes met mine. Once again, I could see that his eyes were brimming with tears, and his voice was choked as he spoke.

“Let me see if I understand what you’re telling me. If I stole the gold and would tell where it was, I could get out of jail today, is that right?”

I acknowledged that it was.

“But,” he continued, “if I didn’t steal the gold and don’t know where it is, I’ll be in here for at least another week, may not get out then if you can’t get the bail reduced enough, and I’ll have to pay you a bunch of money to prove I’m not guilty. Is that right?”

It didn’t seem like the time to explain that the prosecutor had the burden of proving his guilt, so I just agreed that he was pretty close to right.

“Mr. Priest, I swear to God—I don’t know nothing about that gold! I didn’t steal it!”

I left him sitting there, head down, choking back the tears. I went on home and called Muriel and explained the day’s developments. She cried a little on the phone, but thanked me for calling. I promised to keep her advised.

The next day I called Ray Jahn and advised him of developments. He said it was too bad we couldn’t work it out and he’d see me at the bond hearing. I had a conference with Muriel and Ben a couple of days later explaining what we’d need to prove at the bond hearing, which had been set for the next week. I also went by the jail to see Sam again to explain to him what would be involved.

Otherwise, I spent most of the time until the day of the hearing working on other cases for other clients. On the day of the hearing, Ben and Muriel met me at my office and we walked over to the Federal Courthouse. At the entrance, we submitted to the humiliating but mandatory search of Muriel’s purse and my briefcase, walked through the metal detectors, and took the elevator to the magistrate’s floor.

As we got off the elevator, an FBI agent, who had obviously been waiting for us, walked rapidly over to where we were. “Mr. Priest?” he asked. “May I speak with you in private, sir?”

I agreed, of course, anticipating that he wanted to convey some further offer the government was prepared to extend to Sam.

After we had walked a few feet down the hall, he stopped, turned to me, and said: “Mr. Priest, I’m afraid there has been a serious mistake made. An employee of the post office confessed this morning that it was he who took the gold shipment. All charges against Mr. Minor are being dropped. Please extend our sincere apologies to him and to his family.”

I was flabbergasted, and more than a little embarrassed, for as he spoke those words I realized that I had no more given my client the presumption of innocence than had the FBI, and that I was as surprised as they that someone else had confessed.

I try to remind myself of Sam’s case from time to time. I’ve been a judge for most of the time since I represented Sam, and this case has helped me remember the presumption of innocence and its important role in keeping our system fair. Let’s hope none of us ever forgets.