Defendant’s right to due process doesn’t mean system is broken

EDITOR’S NOTE: This opinion piece is regarding the response to the verdict in the murder trial for Devon Dunham in Jasper County last week. This event had not previously been covered in The Island News. The 14th Circuit Solicitor, Duffie Stone, personally tried the case involving the 2017 shooting death of 77-year-old retired volunteer Fire Chief Ernest Martin Stevens on Aug. 10, 2017 in Hardeeville. Beaufort-based attorney Jeff Stephens was appointed to defend Dunham. Though Dunham confessed to shooting Stevens, a jury deliberated less than two hours before finding him “not guilty.” 

By Jeff Stephens

Last week, I served as the appointed defense attorney in the criminal trial of Mr. Devon Dunham, indicted for the murder of Ernest Martin Stevens in Jasper County. 

In their verdict of “Not Guilty,” the jury, consisting of seven black jurors and five white jurors, found that the prosecution had failed to meet their burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intended to harm Mr. Stevens when he shot his pistol towards Mr. Stevens’ moving vehicle. 

Because Mr. Dunham was not charged with any other offenses and the Solicitor’s Office did not directly indict Dunham for any other or lesser offense, the jury could not consider and give a verdict on any other possible offenses. Mr. Dunham was later released. 

Then the telephone calls and e-mails to my office began. One called me a “race traitor” since Mr. Dunham was black and Mr. Stevens was white. One message stated that I “don’t deserve to live.” One expressed a hope that someone kills my father. 

My family wants me to report this harassment to law enforcement. I believe that the best protection for myself, my family, and any other defense attorney threatened for doing their job is to try to educate our community on why we defense attorneys do this job. 

When my children were younger, they asked me how I could defend bad people like they saw on TV. I told them something like, “I help make sure that the police, the prosecution, and the jury all do their jobs fairly so no one is convicted of a crime when the law says they shouldn’t be.” 

The fact is the right to a defense counsel and the right to “due process” to ensure fair trials were so important to our founding fathers that they enshrined them in the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution, right along with our revered rights to free speech and to bear arms. 

The presumption of innocence that must be rebutted by proof beyond reasonable doubt to secure a criminal conviction is the core principle for “fair trials” in our country. It is the golden thread connecting all American and British criminal courts to each other. It has never been expressed better or more simply than by the 18th century English jurist, William Blackstone, who stated that, “the law holds that it is better that ten guilty persons escape (punishment) than that one innocent suffer.” 

It does not matter whether Devon Dunham was one of the “ten guilty men” who escape punishment or if he was the “one innocent.” The jury’s verdict in Mr. Dunham’s trial does not mean that I did anything wrong in zealously representing him or that the jury did anything wrong in finding him “Not Guilty” of murder. And it certainly does not mean that there is anything wrong or “broken” about our criminal justice system. 

It just means that the system continues to work as the founding fathers of this country intended it to work more than 200 years ago. To complain about or harass those of us who keep this system working isn’t just wrong, it’s downright un-American. 

Jeff Stephens is a former assistant solicitor and is a criminal defense attorney with the Quindlen Law Firm in Beaufort. He has prosecuted and defended military and civilian criminal cases for more than 20 years. 

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