September 27, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Justice for Ayla is easier demanded than done

Those demanding justice for Ayla Reynolds can learn from the decades-old death of 19-month-old Eva Marie Knowles.

By Bill Nemitz

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Police say DiPietro, his ex-girlfriend and his sister know more about what happened on the night in question than they're telling investigators. At the same time, many obstacles (see: Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination) stand between what we all think happened to little Ayla and what any of us knows beyond a reasonable doubt.

Stokes, speaking generally, conceded that "if we waited until we had absolute certainty, then we'd never bring anything (to trial). And the jury doesn't have to have absolute certainty."

So why not gather up the bloodstained evidence, wrap it in a grieving mother's outrage and keep your fingers crossed that a sympathetic judge or jury will give Trista Reynolds, as she put it Wednesday, "the answers I deserve to have."

Stokes said the decision on when to charge in any case centers on one critical question: "Is there a substantial probability that you can prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to the satisfaction of a fact finder, whether it's a judge or a jury?"

Not a preponderance of the evidence, which will win in civil court if 51 percent of the evidence tips your way. Not probable cause, which can all but guarantee a grand jury indictment but nothing remotely close to a final verdict.

We need proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, that highest of legal standards. And I'm going to bet that if the AG's office had it, we'd all be watching jury selection by now.

Add to that our constitutional protection from double jeopardy, which prohibits prosecutorial do-overs once a "not guilty" verdict has been handed down, and authorities' reluctance to roll the dice starts to make more sense.

So why not at least slap a lesser charge on those who know what happened to Ayla? If not murder, Trista Reynolds tearfully suggested to the media horde that surrounded her, why not start with endangering the welfare of a child?

Stokes directs our attention to a state statute that prohibits a defendant from being "subject to separate trials for multiple offenses based on the same conduct or arising from the same criminal episode." His translation: "You can't just sort of bring one charge and another charge and another charge until you're basically just wearing people down."

It's a point worth pondering: Would a Class C child-endangerment conviction suffice for little Ayla, even if it were to become clear later that she was the victim of a Class A murder?

"You don't want to take the risk -- there's too much at stake," Stokes said. "You just cannot, under any circumstances, allow this type of public pressure to affect you. It can't be allowed to tip the scales because it perverts the whole process."

Someday, we can only hope, Ayla Reynolds will get the justice she deserves for what even police now concede was a tiny life cut short.

But as her grieving mother and grandfather now take their battle to the streets, they'd do well to consider the legacy of all-but-forgotten Eva Marie Knowles, who was a month younger than Ayla the night someone spilled her innocent blood:

Justice delayed, however painful, is better than no justice at all.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: 

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