We all know that the justice system doesn’t always work the way that it should. The work of Project Innocence has proved this to be true – juries don’t always understand their instructions or the evidence before them. But in the case of Valentin Carbajal, a man accused of molesting both his stepdaughter and daughter, CA Penal Code 11165.1(A), it was the judge who made a bad matter worse. In 2007, Carbajal was tried on 3 counts of molestation concerning his stepdaughter. The jury involved was asked to determine whether he was also guilty of 9 other charges concerning his actual daughter. Their deliberations ended in a deadlock. So far, they’d followed the judge’s instructions properly. Yet when the jury was asked whether Carbajal should receive an additional sentence of 15 years to life under California’s “one-strike” law (California Proposition 36 regarding repeat offenders) for molesting more than one victim, they answered “yes.”
The judge in the case, Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler, knew that something was amiss, but wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. In the end, he gave the jurors further explanation of the law and sent them back to deliberate further. When they returned, they answered in the negative – that Carbajal should not receive the extra sentence because he had only been convicted of molesting one person: his daughter. Fearing a mistrial or re-trial, Judge Fidler decided not to look at the jury’s second answer – a second mistake he would come to regret.
In 2009, Carbajal was retried for the molestation of his daughter and convicted of the 9 aforementioned counts. The second jury decided that he was guilty of abusing more than one victim and thus subject to the “one-strike” law. He was sentenced to 30 years to life (15 years for each count, each victim) and 53 years for other charges. On appeal in state court, the debacle was finally settled. Carbajal’s first trial jury should never have been asked to decide on whether or not he molested multiple victim and their answers – both the yes and the no – were thrown out. He can now be tried again on the same accusations without worry about double jeopardy. Carbajal will serve 83 years to life, in the end: his full sentence. What’s the moral here? Juries, made up of average citizens who are not trained in the complexities of the law, may try their best to determine what the outcome of a particular case may be – but they aren’t experts and it is up to judges to make certain that they are given clear and understandable instructions. This also goes to show that jury trial decisions are not reliable – at best – and a good lawyer understands the ways in which to take opportunities when they are presented in order to better represent their clients.