There is a criminal jury trial going on in Bridgeport, Connecticut that is getting some national–even international—attention because the bizarre and gruesome nature of the allegations. Whenever you mention cannibalism you’re going to get people’s attention.
America loves criminal jury trials. Trials are, in theory, a search for the truth. We love “who done it” capers. Mystery novels are popular. They account for about a third of all books sold. The adversarial process—the contest—is appealing to Americans and an interesting criminal trial is like sitting down to figure out a good puzzle.
Americans love sensational trials featuring celebrities or notorious crimes. Racial conflict always demands a mass audience, like the Florida murder trial now being conducted of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. The Los Angeles police officers put on trial in 1992 for the assault of Rodney King is another example of a trial with very serious racial conflict. The riots that followed the acquittals resulted in more than 50 deaths. The O.J. Simpson murder trial featured race and celebrity, a formula for a media attention on a grand scale.
Americans have always been captivated by capital punishment as well. Public hangings were popular spectacles throughout American history. The recent Jody Arias capital murder case in Phoenix is a modern-day example.
Hard to believe stories where Americans can picture themselves in the same predicament also capture the imagination of Americans, like Amanda Knox. Knox was the 21-year-old American exchange student tried for a murder in Italy; she was the image of middle America’s college age daughter. I have two of them myself.
The publicity can make it difficult to get a fair trial, as potential jurors form opinions about guilt or innocence before they have heard actual evidence or been told by the judge what law should be used to decide the case.
Much of a real criminal trial is boring to watch if you’re not a participant and it’s not your life at stake. Hearings on what evidence may be introduced may be routine and lengthy.
The trial going on in Superior Court in Bridgeport, Connecticut this week that has gained media attention is the trial of Tyree Lincoln Smith. Smith is the 35-year-old man charged with the Bridgeport murder of Angel Gonzalez. Gonzalez is described as homeless—a poor defenseless soul.
The gruesome fact of what Smith allegedly did to Gonzalez is why people are following this trial. The Bridgeport police claim that Smith killed Gonzalez with an axe. They say he mutilated Gonzalez’ head, removed an eyeball and part of his brain, put both in a bag and walked to a cemetery of all places, Lakeview Cemetery. At the cemetery police say that Gonzalez ate the eyeball and brain matter, and compared the taste of the eyeball to an oyster. Cannibalism, sadly, sells newspapers.
The lawyers in the case are two very capable Connecticut criminal lawyers. Smith is represented by Joseph Bruckmann, the chief Public Defender for Bridgeport. John Smirga, the chief prosecutor for Bridgeport is prosecuting the case. Bruckmann has claimed Connecticut’s version of the insanity defense, (“lack of capacity due to mental disease or defect”) and the trial is being heard by a three-judge panel.
The judges are John Kavanewsky, John Blawie and Maria Kahn. I have had appeared as an attorney in many criminal cases before both Kavenewsky and Blawie. Kavenewsky’s career started in California as a prosecutor. He is a no nonsense judge well known for presiding over the 2002 trial of Kennedy nephew Michael Skakel for the murder of Martha Moxley. Blawie, an extremely bright and thorough jurist is a former white-collar crime prosecutor and SEC lawyer. Maria Kahn is a highly regarded judge who is a former Assistant United State’s Attorney and was recently considered for a vacancy on the federal bench.
The Smith trial, with talented litigators and jurists and grizzly allegations of cannibalism has all of the trappings to end up a screenplay. Will Smith be found “not guilty due to a “lack of mental capacity” caused by mental illness and sent to a State prison hospital? Did he have the capacity “to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct?”
What is most frightening is the daily reminder that there are seemingly mentally ill people in this country like Tyree Smith, the Jared Loughners, Adam Lanzas and so many others walking the streets, going about their daily lives untreated and in dire need of mental health treatment.
Gun control is an important public policy priority. More important, though, is figuring out why there are so many people willing to commit senseless crimes who either do not value human life, prefer to die themselves, lack a conscience or are so mentally ill that they cannot stop themselves from killing. Can you think of anything more important and worthy of our attention? I can’t.