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updated: 7/10/2011 10:39 PM

Blame prosecutors, not juries, for verdicts

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In just a finger snap, it seems the American jury system has gone from worst to first and back again.

A year ago, there was public indignation when a federal court jury in Chicago couldn't decide whether former Illinois Gov. Rod "Milorad" Blagojevich was guilty of the offenses that got him impeached.

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Then last month, when Blago was retried and convicted, the jury system was hailed.

Now, with the acquittal in Florida of Casey Anthony, who was accused of killing her daughter, juries are back to being scorned. Over the weekend I even heard a prominent suburban businessman suggest that it is time to scrap the jury system and just let judges decide all cases.

There is just one problem with this simplistic view of justice that blames juries for seemingly misguided verdicts: It is wrong.

It isn't good or bad juries that connect both Blagojevich cases and the Casey Anthony trial. It is good or bad prosecutions.

In the first Blagojevich corruption trial, the defense didn't win the case. They didn't even put on any evidence.

Judge James Zagel didn't determine the outcome. He merely refereed the quarrels.

The prosecution lost the case. It is prosecutors who have the burden of proving that a person is guilty.

If prosecutors accomplish what the taxpayers have hired them to do -- protect society from criminals by presenting evidence in court -- then a jury will be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt and vote unanimously to convict.

In the first Blago case, that didn't happen -- albeit when one juror stood in the way. But one or seven or 11, it didn't matter. Federal prosecutors in Chicago re-tailored the trial and they won the second time around.

There won't be another chance for prosecutors in Florida, at least not when it comes to Casey Anthony and the horrific death of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee.

But just as it was federal prosecutors in Chicago who lost and then won their case against Rod Blagojevich, it is prosecutors who bungled the Casey Anthony murder case.

First -- and most obvious -- the authorities in Florida did not have a solid case against her when they went to trial. As the great Chicago criminal defense attorney Patrick Tuite told many juries in his day, the trial is like a bridge. On one side of the bridge is the defendant, presumed to be innocent. It is up to government prosecutors, Tuite would explain, to walk the accused over that bridge to the other side. If the government's evidence is firm and solid, the bridge will hold strong, the defendant will make it to the other side, which is a conviction.

If the evidence is flimsy and weak, the bridge will collapse and prosecutors will have failed to walk the accused from one side to the other, from innocence to guilt.

In the Casey Anthony case, the bridge was missing planks -- or made of straw. Prosecutors in Orlando did not have the footing to walk Casey Anthony across and the jury saw it quickly. Twelve people usually don't agree on McDonald's or Burger King without an argument. In Anthony's case, as much as they might have wanted prosecutors to walk her across that bridge, there wasn't enough evidence connecting the slats.

That was the prosecution's fault.

And it wasn't the first time.

State Attorney Lawson Lamar has one of the lowest conviction rates in Florida. The most recent state data for a 6-month period reveals an alarmingly poor performance: More than half of all criminal defendants were set free, either acquitted by juries or their cases thrown out for lack of evidence or because of some error or technicality.

Of 197 felony prosecutions during that period in Lamar's two-county district, only 89 cases resulted in jury convictions.

Most urban areas across the U.S., including metro Chicago, report conviction rates in the 80 to 90 percent range. Some jurisdictions hit the mid- to upper 90 percent conviction rate. Around here, a prosecutor with dismal conviction statistics wouldn't last long.

But Lamar, a former Orange County, Fla. sheriff, has been re-elected six times -- most of them with no opposition at all.

"Our job isn't to win; our job is to do justice," Bill Vose, Lamar's chief assistant state attorney, said a few years ago in a newspaper report that examined the low rate of convictions.

Mr. Lamar has said that questions about his conviction rate are "cheap shots." He contends any prosecutor could have a 95 percent conviction rate if they took on only winning cases.

"If you are not losing some cases, you are not going to trial for the right reasons" -- that's what Lamar says he tells assistant state attorneys in his office.

After losing the Casey Anthony case, he must be very proud of them.

And if you believe that, he has a bridge at Fantasyland to sell you.

• Chuck Goudie, whose column appears each Monday, is the chief investigative reporter at ABC 7 News in Chicago. The views in this column are his own and not those of WLS-TV. He can be reached by email at chuckgoudie@gmail.com and followed at twitter.com/ChuckGoudie

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