Alan Riquelmy: A long walk home
They’d changed my work schedule for the murder trial.
It was March, and mornings were still cold even this far south. The walk to the federal courthouse was short, breath steaming in still air. In another hour you wouldn’t be able to see it, and by 11 a.m. you’d curse yourself for wearing long sleeves.
But right now, just before 8 a.m., the cold carried short knives that cut skin well.
It was a different time, when reporters would sit for the whole day in a courtroom, feverishly taking notes. It didn’t matter whether a representative from the cell phone company was on the stand or a chain-of-custody witness.
I had notebooks filled with scrawlings that would never make print. It was too much for one story — direct, cross, redirect, recross. Attorneys love using a language only they know. They’ll do it, sua sponte, even outside a courtroom.
Like so many other things in my business, these days are gone, at least at papers this size. Readers aren’t following every chessboard move in a weeks-long trial. They don’t pore over the details of an accused murderer’s route out of the city on Day 6 of the trial.
Has the trial started? Is it almost over? What’s the verdict? Time, resources and focusing on what readers want is paramount.
So it was with the Sean Bryant and Michael McCauley murder trial that ended last week in Nevada County Superior Court.
Tragedies too often end up like this — a loved one is dead, people are in jail, and the wheels of justice sure could use some grease.
At the start, friends of the victim, Stan Norman, went to every court hearing. The problem is, these hearings are innumerable. Attorneys will meet to talk about when they should next meet. Add a pandemic to that, and what you’ve got is everything coming to a grinding halt.
Justice delayed is justice denied, right? You’ve got to balance someone’s presumption of innocence with their likelihood of fleeing and the public’s safety if released.
Meanwhile, the days turn slowly. Time’s all you’ve got when you’re in jail.
Then, finally, the day arrives. Court still moves like molasses, no change there, but at least it’s moving. You can see it.
The attorneys lay out the case as they see it for the jury. Days pass, until they reach the point where they can argue about the evidence. Yeah, you might think this rises to the level of murder, but does it? What do you 12 strangers think? Get everyone to agree, and the fate of these men will rest on whatever you decide.
Our justice system, like democracy, is the worst, until you consider all the other forms.
They found Sean Bryant guilty. I wonder how long they spent talking about him, what with his former girlfriend’s testimony about watching the hours-long abuse he heaped on the victim.
Michael McCauley, convicted of involuntary manslaughter, that would have been the tough one. Bryant’s defense attorney got dealt a bad hand. Not much to work with. But McCauley’s attorney had some good cards. Reasonable doubt was there. You can see it in the verdict.
And after sitting in jail for four years — and being convicted of a crime that carries a maximum four-year sentence — McCauley is now walking free.
Some attorneys will make an argument, wax eloquent, saying no one wins. No one can bring Norman back. Putting these men in prison won’t do it.
But it gives those of us left behind some justice.
Maybe someone will take note and remember, years from now, and think about a man in prison, perhaps for the remainder of his life.
And they’ll keep on walking in the cold air, past some old courthouse, a free man.
Alan Riquelmy is the editor-in-chief of the Sierra Sun and editor of The Union. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 530-477-4249
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