Recently hitting the “odd news” circuit is the case of Plaintiff John Huttick and how a mistrial was declared in Philadelphia’s Common Pleas Court. Huttick had sued a man, Matthew Brunelli, who struck him in a bar-fight. Brunelli had placed his car keys in between the fingers in his fist to form a weapon. The blow he landed on Huttick resulted in the loss of Huttick’s left eye. According to Huttick, the loss of his eye caused the loss of his job and the draining of his finances.
So what caused the mistrial?
According to the New York Daily News, Huttick was “weeping on the witness stand” when his “$3,000 prosthetic blue eye popped out,” culminating in Huttick catching the eye in mid-air “as two jurors gasped.” The trial judge, Robert Coleman, who called it an “unfortunate, unforeseen incident,” granted a mistrial to the defendant on the grounds that incident “would have likely created additional sympathy for him among the jury members.”
While the story has a certain shock appeal that somehow makes the mistrial seem reasonable, upon closer reflection I wonder if Judge Coleman did the right thing.
The facts are that Huttick lost his left eye, that this has had a profoundly negative effect on his life, and that he enjoys a small consolation from modern science and technology being able to fit him with a life-like, though mere imitation of his lost eye, which does not function but at least spares him the stares of strangers who would otherwise gawk at his deformity. That prosthetic also shielded the jury from the truth of Huttick’s injury; it put a happy face on a tragedy.
I would be interested in hearing if Judge Coleman would have allowed Huttick to enter the courtroom with no prosthetic in so that the jury would observe the absence of his eye – a cold and cruel reality. Or would Judge Coleman have allowed Huttick to wear an eye-patch, covering the gruesomeness of his loss but still allowing jurors to realize Huttick was no longer whole?
Does Huttick’s case stand for the proposition that Plaintiffs must be made to look as whole and normal as possible, so as not to engender “sympathy”? Is it a mistrial if a man who has been partially crippled in an accident stumbles in front of jurors? (If he stumbles every day – why not on his day in court?) Should burn victims be made to wear make-up and prosthetic facial parts to shiled the jury? Should every wrongfully mutilated stump but cloaked in a fake limb casing?
There is no indication that John Huttick was pulling a stunt. There is no indication that every time John Huttick weeps – at a funeral, at the birth of his child, at a joke – that the moment won’t be colored by his prosthetic eye coming loose. What happened in the Common Pleas Court was that our artificial and controlled legal environment was invaded by reality, John Huttick’s reality. I don’t think it was wrong for the jury to see that, but on the contrary I think they were entitled to see things as they really are.