On September 3, 2008, Marcos Venicius Amon Barbosa finished his 48-hour shift at the shipyard. Before driving home, he stopped for a drink. Shortly after he resumed his trip, he ran a red light at an intersection in Vitoria, killing one woman and injuring eight more people.
Today, six years after the event, I attended his trial for vehicular manslaughter at the First Criminal Department of Vitoria. I was graciously invited by the prosecutor, Daniela Moysés, whom I had met the day before on our prison tour. Prior to her impressive legal career, Daniela had been a civil engineer, which requires five years of study in Brazil, and after a few years of working as the engineer of the court system she decided to change direction and studied law at UFES (another five years of education!). After passing a special competition for a prosecution position, she worked for several years in a rural area, and transferred to Vitoria as a special jury prosecutor.
In Brazil, jury trials are reserved only for crimes against life that involve criminal intent or recklessness. The state selects 25 people to serve on a jury, and they serve for two months. Every trial requires only seven jurors, which are elected from the 25-person panel by way of lottery. Employers have to eat up their employees’ two-month absence, even though they are unhappy about it. It is a big commitment, which is why Judge Victor Ribeiro Pimenta started the hearing by thanking everyone for their service.
At this point, after several weeks, the judge, the prosecutor, and the jurors know each other fairly well, and the judge told me that he tries to make it a positive experience for them even though the trials revolve around heavy matters. So, he joked with them a bit before the defendant was brought in.
Escorted by the military police, the defendant sat in front of the court on a chair with no table. His attorneys sat at a table to his left, requiring them to get up and approach him if they wanted to tell him something or confer with him. Today, he had three defense attorneys, all private, to speak on his behalf.
Then, the judge ran the lottery. He put labels with the jurors' names in a special box, shook it, and removed labels one by one.
From the moment of selection, the jurors are prohibited from communicating with each other about the case. Deliberations are forbidden, and each juror votes secretly according to his or her own conscience.
Prior to the jury selection, the prosecution and defense conferred briefly on testimonies. Out of the eight surviving victims, four showed up for the trial. One of them testified that the traffic light was yellow when the defendant’s vehicle entered the crosswalk. The defense wanted that victim to testify. However, said the judge, if that’s the case we’ll want to testify all of them, and the rest will testify the light was red. Daniela didn’t want the witnesses to testify; she was concerned that they would go off on tangents and be unhelpful. One of them even said, shortly after arriving to the courtroom, that she did not want to see the defendant. The bottom line was that no witnesses testified at all.
The jurors were handed copies of the accusatory document, which already includes summaries of the evidence against the defendant and the judge’s “pronúncia” – the decision to bring the case to the jury in the first place. They were given some time to read it, and one of the court workers brought in a big tray with little cups of strong coffee for everyone to sip while they read. All parties, except the defendant, were served coffee, and small trays of cookies for everyone followed. Food is very meaningful in Brazilian culture, and eating together is an important social ritual. At cookie time, Daniela explained to me that the judge had the discretion to close the case based on police evidence, and sometimes does, and also the discretion to decide that the case was not befitting a jury panel and should be sent before the judge.
After the jurors familiarized themselves with the facts, the judge asked the defendant a few questions about his work, familial status, etc. He explained to the defendant that he had the right to testify and very respectfully presented everyone—the jury, the prosecutor, even me—to the defendant, as if we were all seated in the judge’s living room. He then asked the defendant whether he wanted to testify. The defendant replied that he did not, and that his testimony in the police station—in which he admitted to being drunk and falling asleep behind the wheel—could speak for him. He was visibly anxious and very miserable.
The judge allowed the prosecutor to speak, and she started by acknowledging every single person—even me—by name. She smilingly introduced the defense attorneys, referring to each by name, and gently needled them about being “three against one”. She started by expressing thanks to the jurors for their important service, and ended by saying to the defendant that we all wanted justice and that we were hoping to be fair to him.
Then, she proceeded to present to the jury her theory of the case. In the absence of witnesses, the attorneys were allowed to give lengthy speeches to the jury, walking them through the evidence. I was told that, had there been witnesses, they would first be examined by the judge to give their version, then by the prosecutor, and then by the defense attorneys. Parties are allowed to cross-examine the other side’s witnesses. Attorneys could object to questions and the judge could disallow them, and often judges would disallow questions on their own, not prompted by a party’s objection. In general, the judge plays a much more active role in conducting the trial, getting up frequently from his chair, conferring with the attorneys, addressing the jury, and attending to administrative matters (it also is possible that Judge Pimenta is particularly lively and engaged.)
In this particular case, the speeches pertained to an interesting question of substantive criminal law. Brazilian law allows for two types of criminal intent: a desire that the result occur, which is the equivalent of first/second degree murder mens rea in American common law, and awareness of the possibility that the result might happen. According to the prosecutor, this case fell into the latter category. Because the defendant had just left his shift and then decided to go drinking, he must have been aware of the possibility that he could commit an accident, and therefore assumed the risk of doing so. She combined her explanations of criminal doctrine with testimonies of the victims in the case, and the defendant’s own testimony in the police station. The jury attentively followed her, flipping through their materials. While obviously sympathetic to the victims and their suffering, the prosecutor was also sympathetic to the defendant, especially given the long time that had passed since the accident. After her speech was finished, she and I discussed her theory of the case. Brazil does not have plea bargains, except in very small cases, where they are legally proscribed “discounts” for pleading guilty and/or for providing information about the crime. Had the Brazilian system allowed them, she would probably had agreed to a guilty plea to a lesser charge of homicide, even though she thought her theory of the case was sound and the defendant acted with “conscious negligence” (the equivalent of recklessness in common law), because of the time that has passed since the accident and its effect on the defendant. She therefore told the jury that her argument was doctrinal-technical, but that they should vote with their conscience. She thought that her lucid but tempered argument may have communicated to the jury that, as opposed to other homicide cases they had seen during their two-month tenure, this one was not one of the serious ones.
After the prosecutor finished, the first of three defense attorneys, Joao Angelo, rose to speak. Like the prosecutor, he started his speech with a very gracious address to everyone in the room (including me). He thanked the prosecutor for her “calm and respectable” presentation (perhaps hinting to the jury that even the prosecutor was not out to get the defendant.) He then proceeded to argue the case. He spoke mainly of two things: the fact that the defendant obviously had not desired the lethal outcome and did not seek it, and the suffering he had been through in the years since the accident. Some of the argument was legal, but for the most part it was a plea for clemency. Criminal procedure in Brazil allows the prosecutor the opportunity for rebuttal, but doing that opens the door for a subsequent rebuttal by the defense. Because she didn’t feel the case merited a severe outcome, Daniela quietly made the decision not to rebut.
After the defense attorney’s speech, we all broke for lunch. When the judge invited me to eat with them—which was very kind of him—I didn’t quite know where we were headed. It turns out that, on days in which trials are heard in the morning, everyone—the judge, the prosecutor, the defense attorneys, the jurors—share lunch together in the courtroom, sitting around a large table. The court employee in charge of the jury, who also wears a little black robe, arranges for a very nice and rich meal, and so we all chatted amicably around the table, eating roasted chicken, rice, vegetables, plantains, and manioc flour. There was a tacit agreement that no one spoke about the case, and people just had a nice, companionable lunch together for almost an hour before the trial resumed.
When we returned to our seat, the two remaining defense attorneys proceeded with their argument. Their arguments were fairly theatrical and exaggerated, but their essence was the same as that of the first attorney: that the defendant should receive clemency. The second attorney even mentioned that the aftermath of the accident drove the defendant to a suicide attempt, which was not proven in any external materials (and the jury might or might not have believed.) He was divorced after the accident, but we did not know whether the divorce was related to the accident. The prosecutor felt that the attorney misquoted her, arguing a point of law she hadn’t actually made, but she clearly prioritized fairness in the defendant’s case over an ego battle and decided to let it go.
As the defense attorneys argued their case, the judge typed up a list of interrogatories for the jury. It was titled “Quesitos”, and for each of the nine victims it listed four questions:
1. Had the victim suffered an accident?
3. Did the defendant assume the risk that he might cause the accident?
4. Does the jury choose to absolve the defendant?
Questions 1-2 are matters of fact (and clearly were not in dispute in this case). Question 3 is a matter of law, and Question 4 is a matter of ethics and morals. The breakdown of jury decision into interrogatories is new to Brazilian law, introduced in a 2008 amendment. The judge shares the interrogatories with the parties and revises them if they express reservations he accepts.
After the attorneys were done, the judge emptied the room of audience (especially of the crime victims, because the vote is secret and there is concern about retaliation) and addressed the jury. He explained that he didn’t need their vote with regard to each victim, because the accident was the same. He also said that, since questions 1 and 2 were not in dispute, they were going to assume an affirmative answer to both, and start with question 3. He would ask question 4 only depending on the result of question 3. Each juror was handed a green ballot by the court employee, consisting of “sim” and “não” options. The judge asked question 3, again briefly explaining assumption of risk, and the jury voted. A court employee collected the ballots in a wooden box and closed the lid. The judge shook the lid and counted the votes. After 3 “sim” and 4 “não” responses, the deciding seventh vote was “não”, and the defendant was therefore declared not to have assumed the risk. The judge concluded that, in light of this decision, question 4 was not necessary. Daniela explained that, even though the interrogatory separates between the legal and ethical questions, juries frequently combine their answer in the legal vote.
With that, the jury’s part of the trial was over and I had to rush to the airport, but the judge and parties still had some work left to do. In the absence of a vote of intent, this was no longer a jury case, and the judge convicted the defendant of negligent homicide. The punishment was 4 years, but it was substituted by community work, and the defendant agreed to pay each of the living victims $250,00 dollars. The prosecutor walked away from the case feeling the decision was fair. Since the case presented a rather meaty legal question, as well as special personal considerations, no one was surprised that the vote came close. The jury faced a genuine dilemma and faithfully made an effort to follow the case and decide fairly.
“Is it crazy?” my friends, local academics and lawyers, asked me as they graciously gave me a lift to the airport. Crazy? I thought. Not really; that is, not necessarily less or more crazy than an American trial, or of any way which human beings orchestrate to pass judgment on their peers.
Many thanks to Daniela Moysés for inviting me to join her workday, to Judge Victor Pimenta for accepting me so kindly into his courtroom, and to everyone else involved in their trial for their graciousness.