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A legal lesson

Nov 29, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

The Shey Bruce trial put the legal system on full display

The second-degree murder trial that concluded over the weekend was an important demonstration of the legal system for all who followed the trial. Shey Bruce was charged with killing Charles Darrell Laster by hitting him with a beer bottle. But did that blow actually take place? If it did, was it the cause of Laster's death hours later? Even if Bruce hit Laster, did he mean to kill him? Had he thought about it ahead of time, or was it on the spur of the moment? Authorities decided that this wasn't first-degree murder. But was it second degree, or was it murder at all? What about the evidence? Did the state have anything to go on other than what the people involved said they saw? Many of them were drunk and didn't have clear recollection. Was the physical evidence handled as it ought to have been? Or, in a case like this, is there enough physical evidence to even be a factor in the case?

Which expert witness's view carried the most weight? They agreed on a lot of things. Were the things upon which their opinions differed all that important?

If this wasn't murder, what was it? Was the conviction on a lesser charge the right thing to do? Bruce dodged the heaviest conviction that confronted him. Now, what sentence does he deserve within the considerable margin available to the judge? Is he a killer who poses an ongoing danger to society, or is he just a man who lost his temper after a few drinks and didn't even realize what he was doing, or had done?

There was a lot going on here thanks to that sudden blow struck with a beer bottle six months ago, and the trial showed most of it.

Plea bargains seem to be the more common outcome of felony prosecutions these days, so the Bruce proceedings played a civic role beyond the specific prosecution and conviction of a person who caused the death of another. This time, there was a trial.

A public trial -- heard by judge and jury, witnessed by an audience, and reported widely to the citizenry -- is important in a context larger than the specific case because it is a demonstration to the community of the system at work. On full display are our elected prosecutor's office, the government supported public defender system, the selection of a jury, the practices of the judge, the subtleties of the law, and, it is not just hoped but presumed, the administration of justice for the purpose of protecting the rule of law in the community, of deterring future crime, and of punishing a perpetrator.

Finally, the public airing of the testimony in a felony trial, including, in this case, what went on in that Shoshoni residence this spring, also can serve as a cautionary tale to the rest of us. Regardless of intentions, certain behaviors can lead to bad outcomes. In this case, one person is dead, another widowed, and another convicted of a killing. His punishment awaits.

Let this be a lesson to us, in every way.

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MAIL SUBSCRIBERS: Wednesday's edition of The Ranger was delivered to the Riverton post office at 3:25 p.m., in time to meet the postal deadline for next-day mail delivery.

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