Several years ago, and again recently, I discussed my frustration at the lack of impartial coverage of high profile criminal cases in West Virginia by TV news media. If you watch our local news around here you will notice two things: lots of mugshots and lots of interviews of police officers. That’s just about all you will see. Of course there are two sides to every story, but you will never, never hear them. You will only hear the law enforcement side.
Recently I became involved in just such a case. The media got involved and started broadcasting stories that just did not portray the situation accurately. They were causing a big stink and provoking people to call the prosecutor and law enforcement to demand that the book be thrown at my client.
The client is a good person; well-liked by just about everybody who knows him. He has never been in trouble before. He was studying to become a police officer. In fact, he was days away from getting a job as a police officer when the news station decided to ruin his life. He was volunteering at a local school with the marching band. He has a concealed weapon permit and had a pistol in his truck. His truck broke down on school property and he had to hitch a ride home with a friend. So he made the mistake of taking the pistol out of his truck and taking it with him. He made the further mistake of showing his friend the pistol as he was taking it out.
Subsequently, the principal was apparently reviewing surveillance footage of the school grounds, and observed the gun. Band director gets fired for having an unauthorized volunteer. The media picks up on it, and eventually people think we have just narrowly-avoided a Columbine incident. A crazy man wielding a gun at a local school. Somebody has to pay.
I encountered the TV reporter in the courthouse. She informed me that she had uncovered the identity of the gun-wielding volunteer and was going to run a story on it that evening. I then offered to give an interview to try and set the record straight. So I did, and I explained the accurate circumstances, on video. Of course when the story was run that night there was a lengthy interview of a sheriff’s deputy explaining that my client had committed a felony and they were going to charge him for it. They also broadcasted his name, age, and the location of his residence. And that was it. Nothing else. No explanation from me. They chose not to include any of my interview. Of course I wasn’t surprised. That is how it usually goes. When your client is charged they show his mugshot and broadcast his name and other information. When he is acquitted it goes unmentioned.
The reason is this: if viewers were to hear my explanation, they would say, “Oh, what’s the big deal about that? They are going to charge this kid with a felony and ruin his life over that?” The story would lose its sensationalism.
Certainly the argument could be made that law enforcement and the prosecutor have no choice. The guy was caught on video possessing a firearm (unloaded) on school property. There is a statute in West Virginia that makes it a felony, with a 2 to 10 prison sentence and no opportunity at probation or parole for possessing a gun on school property, whether or not unloaded, or on any property upon which a school function is occurring. To contrast that with other crimes, that is the same penalty for wanton endangerment with a firearm, which is like shooting a gun at somebody and missing. Brandishing a firearm, which is like pointing a gun at somebody but not firing, is only a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of one year. So to a certain extent we can blame the legislature for creating an overbroad and unfair law. And I do blame them. Most of them are too cowardly to stand up for common sense and freedom. Attach a school or domestic violence to any vice or allegation of misconduct, and you end up with a capital crime. But I think there is also a place for mercy.
The police do not have to charge, and the prosecutor does not have to prosecute. They have that discretion notwithstanding the legislature. Not every crime has to be punished – nor should it be. Many people would disagree with that. But let those persons throw the first stones who have not themselves committed a crime without being caught or without punishment. In the end it is up to people like me to be the voice of reason to a jury. We are the last and best hope and saving the lives of good people like this young man. It is a heavy burden. You will see things differently when it is your son or daughter, who is a good person, but who has made some sort of mistake and ends up on the receiving end of the criminal justice system. It’s not hard to do. There are so many criminal laws that I do not know them all. Do you think this kid thought that he may have been committing a felony when he took the gun out of his truck? Of course not, yet we are ruining his life as a result. There is a place for mercy and compassion in the court system. But no legislator, prosecutor, sheriff, or judge gets elected by promising mercy and compassion.