There's an interesting story developing in Anchorage these days. A local nurse, Mindy Schloss, disappeared in early August. The news has been filled with stories about all of the search efforts to locate her. In the past couple of days, though, the police have publicly stated that they are looking for a 'person of interest': Joshua Wade.
In 2003, Joshua Wade was acquitted of murder charges in a very high profile trial. Between 1999 and 2001, there were a number of violent rapes against Alaska Native women. Many felt that police were not doing what they could to solve the crimes because of the victims' race. In the midst of this, police found the body of a murdered woman who was also sexually assaulted. Several people told cops that Joshua Wade had bragged about killing her. It seemed from all public information that a conviction was a sure thing.
There were a couple of problems, though. For one, none of the DNA on this woman's body matched Mr. Wade. Secondly, fingerprints at the scene did not match Mr. Wade. Actually, the cops did not even test the fingerprints until the middle of the trial. The modus operandi matched the man ultimately convicted of the multiple rapes. It appeared that M. Wade did tamper with some evidence at the scene. His attorneys argued that he came upon her body after the sex assault and murder. Mr. Wade was acquitted.
Now, though, the cops want to talk to him about the missing nurse. This makes for some interesting water cooler discussion in Alaska. The mother of the previous victim has stated that this would not have happened if the jury had done its job and convicted Mr. Wade the first time. The not so subtle subtext to the news reports is that Mr. Wade was obviously guilty the first time. He just had some really good lawyers. An even subtler subtext is that perhaps those attorneys should be embarrassed or ashamed. That if maybe they had not defended Mr. Wade so hard, this nurse would now be alive.
Bullshit. First, as briefly noted above, there was plenty of reason to believe that Mr. Wade did not commit the murder for which he was previously charged. Secondly. there is no realistic way to predict the future. We have no way to know who might commit a crime in the future. Imagine the closing arguments in that trial:
Prosecutor: Well, the DNA evidence might not match. The fingerprints might not match. And all of the State's witnesses are dirtbags who have very good motives to tell the cops what they want to hear. But if you let Mr. Wade go, who knows what he might do?
To put it like that shows how ridiculous all of this is. Anybody in this business has a case in which a client whose case was successfully resolved has gone on to commit further crimes. But anybody in this business also has cases in which clients whose cases were resolved successfully went on to improve their lives and do good things. Some people take advantage of the breaks life throws them and some people don't. As a defense attorney, my job is to zealously defend my client on the charges that he is then facing. If the prosecution is so dead certain that my client is dangerous, they should work hard to develop a case and prove it.
I don't know whether Mr. Wade actually committed the crime for which he was acquitted. I don't know if Mr. Wade had anything to do with the disappearance of Ms. Schloss. What I do know is that there was plenty of reasonable doubt in his first case. And in our system, that means he should have been acquitted. Part of the price of that may, and I emphasize may, be that he was somehow involved in the death of Ms. Schloss. But even assuming that to be the case, his lawyers did an outstanding job and have nothing to be ashamed of. I also know that very few, if any, of us would want to live under a system where someone's potential future conduct is grounds to convict them when there is otherwise reasonable doubt.*
* I recognize some states allow civil commitment for individuals convicted of certain crimes. I also recognize that the Supreme Court has upheld this practice. That situation, as anti-thetical to liberty and a free society as it is, is inapposite here. Those commitments come after a conviction and a hearing. There was no conviction in this case, which means that the state could not have civilly committed him as dangerous anyway.