Life lessons on trial

By Leandro Aristeguieta

For the CLARION NEWS

My parents always tell me I have to protect myself. My dad especially keeps saying, "Leon, you don't know what's out there. You have to watch out for yourself."

For the most part, I've followed their advice and in my almost 22 years of life, I've never been involved in a such a serious situation I would fear for my safety in some way.

I had never observed anyone in that serious of a situation -- that is until the last week of June this year.

You see, I attended a trial as part of my responsibilities here at The CLARION NEWS.

For four days I saw things I had never seen before, experienced events that happened years ago and saw up close how miserable and hard life can be for others.

For the more observant readers, you might know what trial I am referring to: I wrote three reports about it. For those who don't know, however, I'll give the basics.

Four friends from Mercer County came to Clarion for a fishing camp April of 2018. At midnight, they left a bar and drove down Toby Hill and across the river where they fail at executing a left turn and hit a tree.

Two men die, one at the scene of the crash and another at the hospital a day later. The man who owns the truck is charged with two counts of vehicular homicide by DUI as well as a host of other charges.

Clear cut, right? It was the defendant's truck and he had made statements to paramedics and the police right after the crash indicating he was the driver.

In fact, it was not until the second man died the defendant changed his story and started saying he wasn't driving.

The jury didn't seem to think it was so easy, and they had good reason to doubt the prosecution. No DNA in the driver's area of the truck matched to the defendant. Meanwhile, there was plenty testimony confirming he had been bleeding profusely at the scene of the crash.

I think the lack of DNA was the reason the jury found him not guilty of all charges, however I don't know as I wasn't in jury deliberations.

I do know a couple of things, though. This trial has deeply affected me, and left me with a couple of takeaways.

The first comes to the difference between being found guilty or not guilty and actually having done what you're accused of.

The defense never offered up another of the three men as drivers. They simply said their guy wasn't driving.

I'm not trying to insinuate anything by this. Rather, I was shocked by the apparent unimportance of the real crash.

The question, was not whether the defendant was really driving, but what the prosecution could prove according to the murky concept of "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Even in a controlled environment like the courtroom, the trial was chaotic and there were many questions left unanswered.

It turns out court is not a place to find the truth of events, but to argue and make inferences with the available and often incomplete evidence, something all of us have to do to get through life.

The second thing that struck me was the reactions of the spectators at the end of the trial.

There were two groups of spectators and it was clear who was there for who. One group was staunchly on the side of the defense while the other was squarely with the prosecution.

Those I talked to described the animosity that existed between the two groups: this was a small Mercer County town that had been torn apart by the crash.

This outside conflict was now playing itself in a Clarion County courtroom and would be resolved by 12 Clarion County jurors with no relation to the case.

I heard the jury foreman read all the verdict clearly, but I have to imagine many others in the audience heard nothing past the first "not guilty."

There was very glaring tension in the courtroom as the verdict was read. No one spoke or so much said a sound as the jury was dismissed and the judge stood up and left.

The crying and emotion started a minute or two afterwards, men and women alike, sharing in either their grief or joy.

The defendant's family and friends surrounded him with hugs, kisses and pats on the back. A weight had been lifted of his shoulders.

The family and friends of the three other men walked slowly out of the courtroom and down the stairs of the courthouse. They could not move any faster because their weight hadn't been removed.

They carried that weight outside the courthouse and down the street as they walked back to their cars.

They probably carried it on the drive back on I-80, and when they got back home, they had to find a way to sleep with it.

Many of them probably still carry it now, weeks removed from the trial.

Things continue: kids keep getting drunk and driving and some crash. I wake up at five and go to work at eight every morning. The birds always greet me with their song as I rise from bed.

Life is fragile. Those who died left their loved ones wanting their presence. Those who were there for the defendant saw how easily he could have been taken from them.

I had never seen anything like it, but now I know.

Don't worry Dad, I'll keep staying safe.

The author is a summer intern with the CLARION NEWS.