Pedro Espinoza: Tragic Murder Produces a Terrible Argument

A Los Angeles jury convicted Pedro Espinoza of first degree murder for the senseless and tragic killing of Jamiel Shaw. (LA Times, 10 May 2012; p. AA1). Espinoza, a recently-paroled gangster, killed Jamiel Shaw in the mistaken belief that the red backpack that Shaw was wearing indicated that Shaw was a member of the “Bloods,” a rival gang. The defense lawyer asked the judge to throw out the guilty verdict and declare a mistrial because two of the jurors had worn some red clothing to court on the last day of trial. The defense lawyer argued that by wearing red the jurors displayed bias against Espinoza. The judge rejected the argument, pointing out that the defense lawyer wore a red tie while making it. If there’s a list of “10 Worst Legal Arguments of the Year,” this one deserves to be on it.

During his final pre-verdict remarks to the jury, the defense lawyer had made an argument that examplifies the fact that circumstantial evidence always gives rise to conflicting inferences. The evidence showed that a few days after Shaw was killed, Espinoza kept his appointment to meet with his parole officer. The defense lawyer argued that the evidence supported an inference that Espinoza was not the killer: if he had killed Shaw, Espinoza surely wouldn’t risk a meeting with a parole officer. But the jurors might well have concluded that the evidence was consistent with Espinoza’s guilt. If he had killed someone a few days earlier, Espinoza would want to avoid looking suspicious or lead the police to come looking for him by failing to keep an appointment with a parole officer.

The jury will decide next whether tim recommend that Espinoza be sentenced to death.