Prosecutors can usually tell if someone is guilty of a crime. But proving it is not always easy.
That's because the legal system in America is designed to protect the accused. You've heard it a hundred times before, a person is innocent until proven guilty.Don't take me wrong, I agree with the philosophy and would hate to live in a society where a person is guilty until proved innocent. But the problem I see is that sometimes the accused are protected too much. Much of the evidence that leads a prosecutor to believe a person is guilty is never allowed in the courtroom. And sometimes when it is, it comes back to haunt the judges and the lawyers.
To convict a criminal these days, it takes skilled prosecutors and clever investigators. And that's exactly what it took recently to convict Charles Nicholas Strain of murder in 4th District Court.
The Strain case was my first opportunity to cover a murder trial. Strain's case was unique, he being convicted once of the crime only to have the Utah Supreme Court send it back for another trial because, you guessed it, evidence was introduced at the first trial that should not have been allowed.
So I had to do my homework to find out why prosecutors believed Strain killed his stepdaughter, Deanna Jane Dean, sometime around June 11, 1981, in Spanish Fork Canyon and left her for deer hunters to find four months later.
For months before the trial I talked to investigators, attorneys, attended pretrial hearings and read news clippings of the first trial. By the time the trial came around I had a pretty good idea of what evidence prosecutors had against Strain.
But soon after the trial started I realized that much of the evidence against Strain was not going to be allowed. None of his many confessions to police officers and none of the photographs seized from his prison cell were ever introduced as evidence, and for good reason, they would have been thrown out.
As the trial went on I could see that prosecutors Craig Madsen and John Allan had no doubts about Strain's guilt. But I could also see they were not convinced that the jury would feel the same. Though convincing, all they could present to jurors was circumstantial evidence. Both had that "what if the jury buys his story" look on their faces. To them it was clear, but to jurors, perhaps not.
But if Madsen and Allan could have watched themselves like me and many others in that courtroom, they would have never been concerned. Their questioning of witnesses and presentation of evidence was masterful. The way they connected the circumstantial evidence left little doubt about Strain's fate.
"I've only been here for an hour and I know the guy's guilty," I heard someone in the audience say.
And if the presentation of evidence did not convince jurors, it had to be Madsen's closing arguments. Though long and quite detailed, Grace Van Owen would have been proud, and Perry Mason would have surrendered.
The prosecution and investigation of Strain's case should make Utah County residents feel confident that they are getting their money's worth out of the county attorney's office, and it should make other lawyers and police officials envious.
(Jim Rayburn, Springville, is a staff writer in the Deseret News' Utah County bureau.)