Our Opinion: Citizen jury delivered justice in Parks trial

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Gregory Parks is the only person who knows what transpired between him and 20-year-old Isabel “Chaveli” Palacios in his home on July 31, 2015 — but he wasn’t the sole witness.

DNA test results showing Palacios’ blood on more than a dozen items police seized in a search of Parks’ Ward Boulevard home tell a story that couldn’t be ignored.

Blood spatter on the bedroom walls indicates Parks struck the young mother with an unknown object. The force required to leave that evidence behind would be sufficient to cause death.

“The evidence in this house is overwhelming,” prosecutor Joel Stadiem told jurors in his closing argument. “This is a crime scene.”

That evidence spoke for a young woman who isn’t here to speak for herself. And citizens fulfilling their constitutional duty to sort out the truth heard it loud and clear.

An eight-man, four-woman jury convicted Parks of first-degree murder through the felony murder rule and also returned convictions of second-degree kidnapping and attempted second-degree rape. The Wednesday guilty verdicts followed a marathon murder trial that lasted nearly a month.

Thousands of people followed the trial through The Wilson Times’ daily coverage. The jury foreman, who spoke to Times reporter Olivia Neeley on condition of anonymity, gave observers a rare glimpse behind closed doors and into the jury room where 12 ordinary citizens decided Parks’ fate.

“The amount of blood evidence in cohesion with the expert witnesses definitely played a part,” in the guilty verdict, the foreman said. “I do believe personally that justice was served.”

Medical examiners testified that anyone who lost as much blood as Palacios did would require immediate first aid. After Palacios disappeared on that July 2015 day, never to be seen or heard from again, there are no records of her receiving hospital care.

While jurors grappled with some of the evidence and asked for clarification on legal terms, the foreman said two things were clear — Palacios was gone for good, and Parks was responsible.

“There was never an opposing opinion,” he said.

Parks and defense attorney Tom Sallenger told jurors that Palacios left Parks’ home in another man’s car. But the defense couldn’t produce that phantom driver. Witnesses who testified to glimpsing Palacios in the days after her disappearance couldn’t make a positive identification or prove they hadn’t merely seen a doppelganger.

Everyone accused of a crime deserves a vigorous legal defense — that’s a key component of our criminal justice system. Those who criticized Sallenger, a respected Wilson attorney, for representing Parks fail to recognize that defense attorneys are officers of the court who have an integral role to play.

“I cannot say enough about how thorough both sides were,” the foreman said. “They had an argument to make and a point to prove and I think both sides did an equally impressive job proving that point to the fullest extent that they could. I have a great appreciation for effectiveness and plan. I think that they had a plan and they executed it very, very well.”

In the American justice system, defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty and the state has the burden of proof.

The jury has now had its say, and Parks is guilty in the eyes of the law.

Society has a love-hate relationship with juries. Stunning acquittals reverberate for decades; convictions that are later overturned are blamed on juror naivete as much as prosecutorial misconduct.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers invest millions in carefully selecting jurors and determining how best to persuade them. Judges and lawmakers fear activist juries that exercise their power to set aside bad laws and refuse to return convictions in a phenomenon known as jury nullification.

We believe in the supremacy of the jury. We believe ordinary citizens — our coworkers, our neighbors, ourselves — are better equipped than judges, lawyers and bureaucrats to stand in judgment of fellow Americans. Judges rule on thorny questions of law, decide which evidence is admissible and generally referee criminal proceedings, but the jury is the only trier of fact. That’s as it should be.

The foreman on Gregory Parks’ jury believes he and his fellow citizens performed a public service in rendering their verdict.

“The world today is a dark, dark, dark place full of people willing to do you harm, full of people premeditating to do you harm,” he said. “Obviously, we all live in Pitt County, but I feel like we’ve made Wilson County a little less dark and a little brighter.”

Through their service, Pitt County jurors have indeed strengthened Wilson County residents’ faith in the system.

In America, this is how justice is served.