Local News

Local Lawyer, Judge Shed Light on Au Pair Decision

Posted November 10, 1997 12:00 a.m. EST

— Most of us have never had any first-hand dealings with the criminal justice system. It's hard to understand how and why a judge can overrule a jury's decision.

Our courts are based on system where we are judged by a jury of our peers. But ultimately, the judge is responsible for justice in the courtroom. So in the rare instance when a judge believes the jury has made a mistake, he or she can step in.

That's exactly what happened Monday in Massachusetts. Although it rarely happens here, judges in North Carolina do have the same power to change a verdict.

Louise Woodward was facing life in prison, now thanks to Judge Hiller Zobel she will be set free.

Former Wake County Judge Donald Overby never overturned a jury's decision in his eight years on the bench. But he says if a judge has reservations about a jury's decision, he may review it.

"Those sorts of things are never undertaken lightly," Judge Overby explains. "It's just such a rarity that the judge would have to be fully convinced that the jury had not reached what he thought was an appropriate decision."

Attorney Evelyn Dove Coleman was surprised by Zobel's ruling. She says when Woodward's attorneys only allowed the jury to consider murder or acquittal and not manslaughter, it was obvious the judge was concerned.

"The judge's job is to see that justice is done," Coleman says, "and if there is something that is so overwhelming to the other extreme of what has happened, that is the judge's job to make sure that is corrected."

Chances are you won't see it happening here, but the law does give judges the right to step in.

There are all sorts of reasons why a judge may change verdict. But he or she may only consider the law and the facts of the case, just as a jury would do.

Just as a jury's decision may be repealed and reviewed, so may a judge's. And in this case the prosecution has already said it will appeal.