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Executive Council will hear what Bird jury missed



Last modified: Friday, January 28, 2011
In granting Ward Bird's pardon petition, Gov. John Lynch and the Executive Council have greatly increased the odds of achieving a just outcome in this case. The pardon hearing on Tuesday will feature a wealth of information not introduced in court.

Bird is the Moultonboro farmer imprisoned on a charge of criminal threatening. He has steadfastly maintained his innocence since 2006, when he encountered a trespasser, Christine Harris, who refused to leave his property.

The trespasser claimed that he pointed a gun at her; Bird said he did not. Although many believe this is a 'she said, he said' case, Bird never testified, making it strictly 'she said.' There were no witnesses, videotape or other corroborating evidence.

Imagine that you are accused of a crime that you did not commit. It's your word against another's and, due to evidentiary rules, the jury deciding your fate does not have pertinent background information concerning you or your accuser.

Bird was put into this situation and was offered a plea bargain. He could avoid jail if he pleaded guilty to something that he never did. He wouldn't do it. Would you?

The pressure to take the deal was enormous. He knew that if he lost a jury trial, he'd face a mandatory minimum sentence of 3-6 years. He was frightened, first and foremost for how his incarceration might affect his children, but felt he had no choice. Rather than lie, he continued to maintain both his innocence and faith that a correct verdict would ultimately come forth. He still believes this.

Bird believes that our judicial system is the best that there is. But mistakes happen. In this case, the jury did not learn enough about the character and backgrounds of the two individuals, so it did not have a good basis for evaluating the separate versions of the incident.

For example, the jury never learned about the full extent of the injuries that he sustained from a ruptured abdominal aorta. He had fallen on sharp rock and was severely hurt, requiring an emergency helicopter flight to Maine Medical Center. He underwent major surgery and was released from the hospital just days before his encounter with Harris and had limited mobility.

This was critical information considering her testimony that he 'jumped off the porch' after her and was 'running back and forth,' which would have been extremely unlikely, if not impossible, given his stage of recuperation.

The jury also never directly heard Bird's version of events. Though not testifying was completely within his rights, in hindsight he believes that his firsthand account is critical. He will speak at the pardon hearing and answer all questions.

The pardon hearing will allow full exploration of Bird's credibility - and of Harris's - that was not an option for the jury. We now know that she is a less than credible witness. Harris has been convicted in New Hampshire on animal abuse charges and has faced additional cruelty charges here and South Carolina. She has gone by several aliases.

It's not unpatriotic or disparaging of our system of justice to say that courts sometimes make mistakes. The possibility of error exists in any system devised by man. This was wisely recognized by our forefathers, who provided a remedy in the form of Article 52 of the New Hampshire Constitution, which empowers the governor to grant pardons with the advice of the Executive Council.

The governor and council will review materials and hear testimony from Harris's former parole officer and others who can speak to her veracity, which the jury never could. Bird will testify and share his full knowledge of the incident. The facts will finally come to light.

If facts strongly suggest that Bird is innocent, as his numerous supporters are confident that they will, granting a full and unconditional pardon will be the fair response.

Producing a just outcome will prove that our system works as the framers of our Constitution intended, not only for Ward Bird but for any one of us who might find themselves falsely accused and imprisoned for maintaining innocence.

(Peter Miller lives in Wilmot.)