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MATTERS AT HAND: Democracy can be full of surprises

One thing about democracy: It's full of surprises. The North Dakota version delivered three of these last week. Two were elections. The third a criminal trial. We should be least surprised by the jury's failure to reach a verdict in the Moe Gibbs...

One thing about democracy: It's full of surprises.

The North Dakota version delivered three of these last week.

Two were elections. The third a criminal trial.

We should be least surprised by the jury's failure to reach a verdict in the Moe Gibbs murder trial. Early in our careers, we journalists learn never to second-guess a jury. That's because, in our system, we accept the jury's decision, even if it is inexplicable.

The result in the Gibbs trial is far from mystifying, however. The jury apparently deadlocked on the question of DNA evidence. Half the 12 jurors accepted it, and half did not.


This created an unbridgeable gulf, so the jury couldn't agree, and the judge dismissed them.

The defense attorney, Jeff Bredahl, didn't present witnesses. In hindsight, this seems to have been a bold move. It suggested that he believed the state's case - which rested on the DNA evidence - was so weak that it didn't deserve a response.

The result leaves family and friends of the victim, Valley City (N.D.) State University student Mindy Morgenstern, without closure.

Gibbs could be tried again because retrying a case in which no verdict was reached does not constitute double jeopardy. The state might decide to proceed with other criminal charges pending against Gibbs.

The result does raise a question that could linger in the state's criminal justice system. That is, just what is the value of scientific evidence in a criminal case? Will this jury's refusal to accept DNA evidence weaken its use in other criminal trials?

While the jury's failure might seem puzzling, the election results were stunning - and have long-term implications for education and emergency services in the region.

Voters in the Hatton and Northwood, N.D., school districts rejected a consolidation plan. The plan had been worked out over several months' time, and both school boards supported it strongly. It aroused little open opposition, and so it seemed headed for passage.

The result suggests that voters in both communities thought the plan was lopsided, however. In Northwood, only 14 votes out of nearly 370 were against the plan. Turnout was heavier in Hatton, reaching 407 votes, even though Hatton is the smaller town. And more than half of the votes there were against the consolidation.


As Herald editorial page editor Tom Dennis suggested in Friday's editorial, it seems apparent that voters in both Northwood and Hatton thought Northwood was getting the better deal.

The result leaves the future extremely uncertain for these two districts and probably for consolidation efforts in other areas. Yet, rising costs and continued population decline in rural districts makes consolidation more urgent.

The week's second election involved a tax to create a modern headquarters for the county's 911 emergency calling system. Voters turned it down.

This is both a mystifying result and a troubling one. Unlike some projects, an emergency system is of potential benefit everywhere in the county and to everyone in the county.

The result can be interpreted only as a slap at county government, which apparently has lost the trust of voters. The reason is the perceived extravagance of the state/county building, constructed after the flood, and the cost overruns in the new county jail.

What's more, the county seemed to try to sneak this election through, first by scheduling it on a Wednesday in midsummer (Who remembers ever voting in July? Or on a Wednesday?), and second by cutting the number of voting places.

Perceptions of arrogance, incompetence and skullduggery are hard to overcome, even if they are not merited.

Therein, likely, lies the explanation of the election result.


A lack of attention to the election probably contributed. Local media gave the issue considerable coverage, but there was no campaign and no public discussion - in short, no conflict of the kind that engages voters.

Like the consolidation results, this one leaves the future extremely uncertain. Perhaps, the county can make do with existing facilities. Perhaps, it will want to call another election.

In any case, it's clear that voters were in a contrary mood last week.

-Jacobs is editor and publisher of the Herald.

Related Topics: MIKE JACOBS
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