Experts agree mistrials rare, challenging for both sides
Defendant Cara Lee Rintala is seen during her murder trial in Hampshire Superior Court in Northampton. Judge Mary-Lou Rup declared a mistrial when the jury announced it was hopelessly deadlocked after about 30 hours of deliberations. SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — Not only was the mistrial in the criminal case involving Cara Lee Rintala a disappointing outcome, it was also the least likely outcome, according to legal experts.
Several local lawyers and legal scholars said mistrials are rarely declared. When they are, the decision to bring cases back for a second trip through a courtroom presents challenges for both legal teams.
Cara Rintala, 46, formerly of Granby was charged with first-degree murder in the strangulation death of her wife, Annamarie Cochrane Rintala, 37, in the couple’s Barton Street home on March 29, 2010.
Her trial, which began Feb. 20, ended March 13 when Hampshire Superior Court Judge Mary-Lou Rup declared a mistrial after the jury announced it was hopelessly deadlocked after about 30 hours of deliberations.
Judith Holmes, senior lecturer in the legal studies program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said mistrials are uncommon, and retrials even more so.
Whether to pursue a retrial is a call for the prosecution to make, Holmes said.
“It all depends how badly they want a conviction,” she said.
Prosecutors have pledged to bring Cara Rintala back to trial as soon as possible. Meanwhile she remains held without bail pending a bail hearing March 25 in Franklin Superior Court.
Martha Merill Umphrey, a professor in the department of law, jurisprudence and social thought at Amherst College, said despite reluctance to go through another trial, there is also a great desire for everyone involved with a case to bring it to a close.
And Umphrey said many things can change by the time a case gets to a retrial.
There may be a different defense attorney, a different judge, and there will certainly be a different jury, she said, any of which can affect how a trial will be presented.
Umphrey said if the Rintala case goes as far as a new trial, both sides are likely to take on different litigation strategies and possibly present evidence in a different fashion or prepare differently for their respective witnesses’ cross-examination.
A first attempt at getting a verdict can be looked at as a “trial run” in preparation for a second, Umphrey said.
Holmes said information about how a jury split its vote would be useful for both legal teams but is sometimes difficult to get.
In most cases, unless restricted by a so-called “gag order,” jurors are free to discuss the case after its conclusion, but most are reluctant to do so, Umphrey said.
Attempts by the Gazette to contact jurors involved in the Rintala trial for interviews have been unsuccessful.
Hard to agree
Springfield attorney John Pucci said there will always be a certain percentage of criminal cases that are declared mistrials, in most cases because of deadlocked or “hung” juries.
“It’s hard to get 12 people to agree on anything,” Pucci said.
Pucci said in a situation like the Rintala trial, where a mistrial is declared because of a hung jury, the state is automatically entitled to retry the case, although it is not obligated to.
“They can just walk away,” Pucci said.
Easthampton attorney Alfred Chamberland said, “Every effort is made to try to have a jury reach a unanimous verdict.”
In the event a jury tells a judge it is having difficulty reaching consensus, the jury members are often read the Tuvey-Rodriguez charge, sometimes called the “dynamite charge,” by the presiding judge, Chamblerland said. This took place in the Rintala trial.
The purpose of that instruction, according to Chamberland, is to help a jury by encouraging the minority opinion-holders listen to the majority to examine whether their doubts are reasonable ones. It also reminds jurors that any other jury is going to be pulled from the same pool, that it will hear the same evidence they have heard, and to not assume any other group would do a better job at reaching a unanimous verdict.
Alan Rubin of the Committee for Public Counsel Services in Northampton said a deadlocked jury is the most common reason for declaring a mistrial.
Other reasons for a mistrial include a jury being somehow tainted, or a witness saying something during testimony that could unfairly prejudice the case, Rubin said.
Rubin said there is no limit to how often an eligible case can be retried, but, he cautioned: “At some point, there is always pressure on both sides to resolve a case.”
If a mistrial is declared in the middle of a trial and it’s because of some type of error on the government’s part, the opportunity to retry is not automatically guaranteed, Pucci said.
Pucci said while there may not be a clear advantage to one side or another when a case goes back for retrial, some things do fundamentally change.
For example, if a defense team held back some bits of evidence before trial that came out during testimony, that element of surprise is gone by the time the case goes through a second trial.
People can make different impressions to different jurors, there may be a different judge presiding and possibly different lawyers litigating any case that goes to a retrial, Pucci said.
“Two trials can be superficially similar but substantively quite different,” Pucci said.
Holmes, the UMass lecturer, said before most trials, the defense tends to be more aware of the prosecution strategy than the prosecution is of the defense’s.
In a retrial, however, both sides have revealed their strategies to the other and therefore both legal teams may be able to better tailor their approaches to the case.
Holmes said witnesses may be prepared differently than they were in a first trial and lawyers may apply different tactics if they can anticipate what types of things might be asked during a cross-examination.
A defense team may have a slight advantage when it comes to a retrial, Chamberland said, in the sense that the state likely put on its best case the first time around.
Rubin said mistrials that wind up being retried don’t necessarily favor one side or another. Retrials also tend not to provide any big surprises the second time around, he said, although there are often differences.
Rubin said witnesses who were effective during a first trial may be much less so in a second and vice versa.
Fatigue may also be a factor in how effectively a case is presented to a new jury after it’s been tried once already, Rubin said.
“Everybody’s kind of fried,” Rubin said. “It’s hard to gear up again.”
Bob Dunn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.