In an Anne Blythe article in Friday’s July 8, 2011 The News & Observer titled “Judge throws out murder charge,” Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Gessner dismissed murder charges against 31 year-old Mario Antonio Smith. Prosecutors accused Smith of killing Dwight Lee Dean at a night club after a disturbance there. According to prosecutors, their witnesses gave statements after the incident that significantly differed from testimony given on the witness stand in court. (This is similar to a case involving the conviction of Shan Carter, which I will be highlighting in the future.) Furthermore, the prosecution’s one witness who linked Smith to the crime, described a perpetrator -who did not match the defendant in stature or hair style. (Not unlike the Erick Daniels case.)
Since the incident took place in July 2010, it is reasonable to assume that Mr. Smith was incarcerated for a year prior to his weak case being dismissed by Judge Gessner. The fact that the prosecution even brought such a merit-less case to trial was not surprising to defense attorney Jeff Cutler. Cutler stated about prosecutors, “That’s what they do. They don’t want to take heat for not trying the case. They’d rather let a judge or jury make the decision. I’m not surprised the judge dismissed it.” The prosecutor lacked credible evidence! Without forensics tying Mario Antonio Smith to the crime or a consistent and credible eyewitness, prosecutors plodded forward in preparing a flawed and flimsy case while the defendant cooled his heels in the cooler. (Similar to the Carletta Alston case, Smith essentially served a year sentence on a charge so weak that a judge threw it out before it could be brought before a jury… in Alston’s case the prosecutor avoided that humiliation by dropping charges against her himself.)
In their zeal, the Wake County prosecutors also charged Gregory Mecos Lee Watkins with accessory after the fact because he allegedly drove Smith from the nightclub stabbing scene. The article made no mention of whether or not he endured a lengthy pre-trial incarceration, or was released on bond. Regardless, due to actions from the bench on Smith’s case, the “accessory” charge against Watkins was dropped, as well.
I applaud Judge Gessner for his actions in this case, as it supports justice that is much too often denied the poor, disenfranchised, and people of color. Because prosecutors in the Tar Heel state have a propensity to charge people from the disadvantaged and “not-so-privileged” classes with crimes despite the paucity of evidence against them, they can usually count on a jury, with a mindset to please the prosecution, to deliver a verdict against the defendant. It happens time and time again, when defendants are convicted without a shred of credible evidence. Most of the time these cases pass public attention because the media does not cover them… it is only when the advantaged and privileged are snagged in the cogs of the criminal justice system that the media-types jump on criminal cases.
Unfortunately, it is only in high profile cases involving defendants from the upper echelons of society that jurors take their oaths seriously. In the Jason Young case, for example, the jurors fought to a standoff in a murder trial that was declared a mistrial after several days of deliberation. Holdouts against conviction in that group of twelve, did not feel that the prosecution presented a case without reasonable doubt. In most trials, however, with defendants lacking status or media appeal, jurors tend to reach verdicts not by analyzing the facts, evidence, and presentations of the barristers but instead rely on their visceral emotions… ready to convict when a crime victim is young and innocent or to assuage the grief of victims’ friends and relatives.
Jurors in the Erick Daniels case were not presented with a compelling case for his guilt, yet those dozen who sat in judgment reached a unanimous decision against him. The same can be said for the jurors in the Gregory Taylor case. Indifferent juries are responsible for many innocent people being convicted and given lengthy sentences in this state… the majority of wrongly incarcerated being the poor, disenfranchised, and people of color.
The second to the last paragraph in the article revealed the identity of Smith’s prosecutor as being Melanie Shekita… only to say that efforts to reach her were unsuccessful. I am glad to see the staff of the newspaper taking baby steps away from its ensconced PAPEN (Protect All Prosecutors Except Nifong) policy. Although prosecutors may feel pressure to convict someone of an especially heinous crime such as murder, it behooves them to take pains to see that their priority is to convict the guilty party. All too often they bring charges and prosecute knowing that the defendant is innocent (such as the Gregory Taylor case and the Erick Daniels case).
Until North Carolina prosecutors become true “Ministers of Justice,” prosecuting only those cases which have merit, it is incumbent upon judges to assure that the rights and liberty of the innocents are protected by dismissing those cases brought by prosecutors in which there is not enough evidence to convict… as did Judge Paul Gessner in the Mario Antonio Smith case. Unfortunately juries cannot be relied upon to use sound reasoning and impartial objectivity instead of sympathy and raw emotions in reaching a fair verdict… especially when it comes to the lives and futures of defendants who are poor, disenfranchised, and people of color.
I believe I speak on behalf of all Tar Heelians when I state that we are all in Judge Paul Gessner’s debt.