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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Jury aborts attempt to prosecute Kansas doctor

After only 45 minutes of deliberations, a Kansas jury has acquitted Dr. George Tiller on all counts of violating the state law against performing a late-term abortion without a supporting second opinion. To refresh your memories, Tiller is one of the few doctors in America who still performs late-term abortions, what pro-life supporters refer to as "partial birth" abortions. Under Kansas law, a doctor can only perform this procedure after the patient has received a second opinion, concurring in the judgment that the pregnancy is a danger (physical or mental) to the mother. The Kansas law prohibits the doctor issuing the second opinion from having any financial relationship with the doctor performing the procedure. The State, in this case, alleged that Dr. Tiller had close financial ties to the doctor who issued virtually all of his patients' second opinions. According to the prosecution, she was little more than an employee of Dr. Tiller's clinic.

So, while the case incited passions about abortion, with accompanying protests, sit-ins and prayer sessions outside the courthouse, it was really a case about money. Did the jury believe that Dr. Tiller essentially paid Dr. Neuhaus to always agree with his diagnoses so that he could perform abortions? The answer was a resounding "No." Most juries take 45 minutes to choose a foreperson and figure out what to order for lunch. So, this jury seems to have concluded that this case was not a close call.

I find the result of this case encouraging because it provides evidence that jurors, even in a case laced with controversy, emotion, pressure and pre-trial publicity, were able to focus on the relevant facts and applicable laws. This jury clearly did not make this case a referendum on abortion. Rather, they answered the very narrow set of questions given to them by the court about the financial relationship between Drs. Tiller and Neuhaus.

Many pundits rip into juries for being irrational, flighty and beholden to emotion. Such pundits often have little to support their assertions beyond an occasional anecdote or conjecture about why a jury chose a particular verdict. My experience leads me to conclude that most jurors are serious and conscientious. They would rather have a well-defined decision task and clear legal instructions. If the lawyers and judges do their jobs, most jurors can be counted on to do theirs.

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