Yesterday several CNN TruTV trial commentators interviewed jurors and witnesses in the Kathleen Hilton arson/murder trial. What these people said about the trial did not surprise me, even though commentator Jack Ford said many people were “stunned” by the verdict. In part, this is because I’ve been a juror on a panel whose verdict “stunned” someone (the judge); in part it’s because I know someone (at least one) who reminds me of Kathleen Hilton and I know other people who remind me of the prosecution witness whom commentators referred to as “the co-grandmother.”
Jurors in the Hilton case did not say they thought the defense proved Ms. Hilton’s innocence, only that the state did not prove her guilt. That is exactly as it should be.
Any conscientious juror hopes they will not live to regret their decision. Unfortunately the reality is that no verdict is regret-proof. If you reach a guilty verdict and have any nagging doubts—reasonable or not—you will forever wonder if you made a mistake and punished the wrong person. If you reach a not-guilty verdict, it means you do have reasonable doubts and you will forever wonder if you made a mistake and let a criminal go free. And if you can’t reach a verdict you will forever regret it—for many reasons.
I don’t think people understand this. Serving on a jury is highly stressful. Just look at the Hilton jury. During the trial, one juror expressed feeling as if she’d had enough, and she was dismissed. Another juror went to a bar where, over drinks, he expressed much the same feelings within hearing of the Clerk of the Court and so was called to the witness stand and questioned by the judge.
After the verdict, it was reported that Puerto Rican relatives of the victims of the fire blamed all of America for being racist because the jury was “all white,” as if the jury had no compassion for the dead. Imagine how stressful it must be to be called racist for reaching a verdict.
If I were a Hilton juror, I believe I would also have voted “not guilty” for several reasons: 1) the state failed to prove that the fire was in fact arson, 2) failed to prove that Ms. Hilton was the one who started the fire if it was arson, and 3) failed to prove that Ms. Hilton’s confession was not a false confession. (Frankly, I’m not sure Ms. Hilton knows truth from delusion and lies.)
I also believe that I would have serious regrets about sending Ms. Hilton out into the general population given her mental problems.
Here’s another disclaimer: I am not a psychologist (or a lawyer). I am a person who has known at least one person with a “schizoid personality” or a “borderline personality,” such as psychologists described Ms. Hilton as being. I have also known at least one person who has lived in fear of such individuals (as the so-called “co-grandmother” stated in the post-trial interview that her own daughter lives in fear of Ms. Hilton).
The law provides no shield from someone with severe mental problems. When restraining orders are available, they are no real shield. Such people don’t think the law applies to them. They can’t be restrained. The police may not even respond to a call to 911 to enforce a restraining order. In Ms. Hilton’s case, Findlaw seems to think that she should be entitled to grandparent visitation rights. If that is legally so, then the co-grandmother of Ms. Hilton’s grandchildren who were almost killed in the fire ten years ago has no recourse to protect her daughter and grandchildren from Ms. Hilton’s influence or contact.
The law provides no solutions for Ms. Hilton’s children, either. Apparently her oldest daughter and son-in-law have agreed to take in Ms. Hilton (who is indigent as well as mentally impaired) for awhile. I wonder if they might be able to take Ms. Hilton to court and have her declared incompetent. However, they would have to prove that she’s a danger to herself AND others: would the courts have to decide, though, that her acquittal disproves that?
And even if Ms. Hilton were declared incompetent and put into their guardianship, what would they do with her? Since a 1975 Supreme Court decision, it has been a violation of a person’s civil rights to confine them to a mental hospital against their will. Obviously, any involuntary confinement is a violation of civil rights—even confinement in a jail. However, it’s also a peculiar Catch 22. What I mean is that a mentally impaired individual does not have a “will” in the same way that a normal person does. A mentally impaired person may not want to be confined, but that doesn’t mean that confinement is inappropriate or even cruel. (Yes, I realize that confinement in mental institutions has sometimes been used maliciously.)
Ms. Hilton’s relatives and friends really have no options. She’s unlikely to want to remain in her daughter’s household forever—even if her daughter could afford to support her forever. She’s also unlikely to be able to make her way in the world. She’s near retirement age, but the Social Security System is unlikely to have much support to provide her, except basic Medicare and Medicaid. Even if she qualifies to live in a state-owned, Medicaid-supported nursing home, she probably won’t want to be confined there against her will. She might go back to “live in the woods,” as she reportedly did before she was arrested ten years ago.
I don’t have a solution. All I know is that Ms. Hilton’s angry, frightened “co-grandmother” has every right to feel that the justice system has failed her family, because they have no way to protect themselves from Ms. Hilton. However, it wasn’t the jury’s duty to solve the Kathleen Hilton problem. The jury’s duty was to make sure that the State of Massachusetts did not overstep its bounds in its desire to appear competent to identify the cause of a fire that killed five human beings.
I do not feel, though, that the justice system has failed the relatives of the murder victims, as they seem to think it did. Justice is blind, especially to victims and their families. Justice does not make right the wrongs that people do to each other. The justice system is designed to identify the most likely culprits in a crime, to ensure that the state has done due diligence in proving the identity of the culprits, and to remove criminals from society and punish them appropriately. Crime victims are on their own to come to terms with what has happened to them. As Pres. John F. Kennedy said, “Life isn’t fair.”