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Who's zoomin' who in the Paul Pierce case?
The jury got it right
BY HARVEY SILVERGLATE

THE JURORS WHO issued mixed verdicts in the just-concluded Suffolk Superior Court jury trial of three men alleged to have bludgeoned, stabbed, and nearly killed Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce should be commended. The same is far from true, however, of much of the news media. Where the jury devoted great intelligence and care to assessing the hotly contested evidence in the case, which saw witnesses change their earlier testimony at trial, most of the media's performance was downright embarrassing. There is much to Thomas Jefferson's famous observation that, given a choice between government without the press or the press without government, he would choose the latter. But media coverage of the Pierce attempted-murder trial suggests that we should prefer the jury system to either.

The verdicts one defendant, 33-year-old Anthony Hurston, was acquitted of all charges, while his co-defendants, William Ragland, 30, and Trevor Watson, 35, were convicted of lesser charges than the main attempted-murder allegation lend credibility to the claim advanced by the defense lawyers. The defense argued that these witnesses, under improper pressure from police and prosecutors, may well have been lying not at trial but earlier, when they gave incriminating evidence in prosecution-team interviews and in testimony before the grand jury that brought the charges. In other words, the jury put to rest the impression, created by an overzealous prosecutor and a news media that acted more like the government's lapdog than its skeptical check, that all the witnesses who changed their testimony at trial did so because of threats from the defendants or their friends.

The most that can be said for the press's coverage of this case is that it got the trial's subtext right, which hinged on whether the defendants were responsible for threatening witnesses who recanted before the jury. But the media blew a golden opportunity to show the public how long-established, largely hidden techniques are sometimes used by police and prosecutors to pressure witnesses to finger a suspect even when the suspect may be innocent. Further, how a biased trial judge in this case, notoriously pro-prosecution Superior Court judge Charles Spurlock can rein in defense counsel's questioning and presentation of evidence. Instead, the defendants were summarily denominated "thugs" especially on talk radio and by the Boston Herald who were "associates" of the badass rap group Made Men and who obviously intimidated every witness whose trial testimony exonerated any defendant.

In short, the case offered a perfect opportunity to publicly debate the elegantly phrased criticism of police and prosecutorial tactics leveled by Harvard's Alan Dershowitz, who suggests to his criminal-law classes that police and prosecutors "teach witnesses not only to sing, but also to compose." The media, on the whole, forfeited that chance. The jury, on the other hand, demonstrated subtle powers of discernment on the all-important question of what makes witnesses lie.

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Issue Date: October 10 - 17, 2002
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