We saw this coming. In fact, we predicted it. This prediction was not based on our personal beliefs regarding Officer Yanez’ guilt or innocence, but rather it was based off our personal experience with the criminal justice system in Minnesota. As insiders of the system, there were three factors that led to our prediction.
1) Great defense lawyers
2) The badge
3) The burden of proof
The importance of a quality defense attorney cannot be understated. Officer Yanez, with the backing and funding of the police officer employee union, hired not just one but three great defense attorneys. Experienced and knowledgeable criminal defense attorneys know how to attack a case. They attack the evidence, they hammer on the burden of proof, and they develop trial strategy. As the beneficiary of the collective knowledge of three of the best criminal defense attorneys in Minnesota, Officer Yanez had a team behind him that knew how to win a case.
Police officers are on the front lines. They encounter dangerous situations and people. Police sacrifice their time and safety to keep our streets safe. The public, whether consciously or subconsciously, realize this sacrifice. This realization manifests as a general trust by the public for police officers. When an officer testifies in a criminal case, his testimony is generally believed. Here, even though Officer Yanez was the defendant, he still was a police officer. Whether correct or not, this implicit bias towards police officers likely helped Officer Yanez in the jury room.
The Burden of Proof
There are many different standards of proof in the law.
Reasonable suspicion- is it reasonable to suspect something.
Probable cause- is there reasonable grounds to believe something to be true.
Preponderance of the evidence- does the greater weight of the evidence prove a claim; 51%-49%.
Clear and convincing evidence- is the proof so strong that it leaves a firm belief that it is highly probable that the claim is true.
Lastly, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. This is the highest standard we have in the law. It is also the most burdensome standard. Officer Yanez was charged with a criminal offense, thus he, as with all criminal defendants, was entitled to this high standard. The jurors in Officer Yanez’ case were told that beyond a reasonable doubt requires that they have the same confidence in their verdict that they would require when making life’s most important decisions – perhaps the same level of confidence that you would need before you deciding to pull the plug on a loved one in the hospital, or the type of confidence needed when determining whether to have a permanent elective surgery. This high standard, coupled with great lawyers and the implicit trust the public has for the badge, led to our prediction becoming reality.
So what does this mean?
There are those who believe that Officer Yanez was rightly vindicated. There are also those who believe that the system is broken. Yet no one believes that the system is perfect. So how do we make it a better system? Very few criminal defendants will be police officers and benefit from the badge. Additionally, the burden of proof was the same for Yanez as it is for all criminal defendants. That leaves the third category, lawyers. If everyone charged with a crime received the type of lawyering Officer Yanez was the beneficiary of, there is no doubt that the system would be better. The public should thus fight to ensure that every criminal defendant has the right and the opportunity to a good lawyer. We must demand that our legislature and executive branch properly fund the courts, the public defenders, and legal assistance programs. Finally, for those of us who are lawyers, we must continue to diligently fight for the rights of the accused.