|"Why would she say it did?" (10/19/97)|
Now, 18 months and $78,000 in legal expenses later, he may just get his job back.
In a case which borders on the bizarre, the Dallas County District Attorney's Office took Mr. Arellano to trial earlier this month on all five of the allegations. The most serious charge was indecency with a child by contact, a second degree felony carrying with it up to 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. If the case had gone according to plans, the State would have had the five girls take the witness stand and voice their accusations.
But the wheels apparently fell off the prosecution's case.
Four of the cases were dropped, three of them after the trial had begun. According to the Dallas Morning News, one of the girls recanted, one "changed her story", one refused to testify, and one was not allowed to testify because she could not distinguish between the truth and a lie. That leaves, of course, one girl. Undeterred, the D.A.s office moved forward and continued the trial with the testimony of the remaining school child.
The jury, somewhat not suprisingly, found Mr. Arellano not guilty.
This, of course, does not mean that the jury was of the opinion that the girl was being untruthful. It is completely possible that they believed the alleged victim was telling the truth but not to an extent that they could eliminate all reasonable doubt. Under our system of justice, believing someone "probably" committed a crime is not sufficient. A jury must be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt. Nevertheless, one has to wonder, when faced with these facts, if the jury simply believed that Mr. Arellano had not committed the offenses of which he was accused.
Norman Kinne, the First Assistant District Attorney of Dallas County (who is set to retire next year), stated, "If it didn't happen, why would [the girl] say it did?"
Good question. I hope, however, that the prosecution asked that question before Mr. Arellano's arrest and not after his trial which appears to have fallen apart at the seams.
The mere accusation of sexual assault can ruin a life. As a consequence, a law enforcement agency, before it launches such a charge against an individual, must ask itself the most basic question of criminal justice: Are we right? Sure, a prosecutor may have questions about whether he can prove his case, but if the prosecutor is convinced the offense happened, you cannot blame him for seeking a conviction even if the odds are against him. Initiating a prosecution without being absolutely convinced of an individual's guilt, however, is unforgivable.
Taking an allegation of criminal conduct at face value is a dangerous practice. Yes, there are evil individuals in this world who do horrendous acts to good people. Sometimes it is only the mere testimony of the innocent that can prove a criminal case. But make no mistake about it, there are also demented individuals in our society who have no qualms about making fictitious allegations against the innocent. Normally, sorting out the two is not the equivalent of rocket science, but every case needs to be analyzed and examined with a fine tooth comb before formal charges are lodged.
The girl in the Dallas case may have indeed been a victim, but tough questions had to initially be asked. After all, the defense certainly would have made such inquiries: Did she know the girl that recanted? Are they friends? Have the girls been wronged by the teacher? Have the made similar allegations in the past? Was there sufficient time to commit the crime? The questions are endless. I respect the Dallas D.A.'s office enough to believe that they were asked early on.
Mr. Arellano was exasperated after the trial: "It was so unbelievable, so out of whack, so crazy, so outrageous. Even if Mother Teresa was in the classroom, she can get nailed, too. It is so easy, so unbelievable easy".
To obtain an arrest - I agree - is easy. On the other hand, the constitution does not make it quit so easy to convict. He was, after all, acquitted. Of course, if the unspeakable is true and Mr. Arellano was innocent, he probably will not be doing public service announcements for the criminal justice system.
A friend of mine told me last week: "You know, you guys have a lot of power". Well, yes. The public, in general, wants us to be . . . . At least as long as we're right.
Barry Green is the District Attorney for the 271st Judicial District.