Monday, November 2, 2009

Jury Duty, Chapters 1 & 2

My new friend Michelle Hickman, over at The Surly Writer (and don't let the name fool you; she ain't as surly as all THAT) (hope I didn't blow your cover, Michelle), recently wrote a five-part series of posts about her experience of jury duty. And that spurred me to tell you all about my own experiences of jury duty. . .

I have been summoned for jury duty five times in my young life. One of those times (the fourth, I think), I went to the courthouse downtown and spent the day reading in the 'jury pool waiting room', after which I was sent home without ever seeing the inside of the courtroom. The other four times, I was sent to the courtroom as part of a pool of prospective jurors for a trial. In each of those cases, I ended up being empaneled on the jury, even though the pool was at least three times as large as the actual number of jurors to be empaneled. Twice, I was selected to be the foreman. So, at this stage of my young life, I've amassed a fairly substantial body of juridical work (if that's the right word for it).

Molly, on the other hand, has been summoned exactly once, and much as she'd love to sit on a jury, the week she was 'on the hook', she called the 'jury line' every day, but her number never even came up to go downtown and wait in the room. Such are the random fortunes of doing one's civic duty (I was sorely tempted to title this post 'Jury Doody', but that would be just a tad too cynical and disrespectful, even for me). . .

-------------------------

My career as a juror got off to a rocky start. I received my first summons about a month after I started my first job out of college, and I was so dialed-in to getting off on a good foot on my new job, and I was so young and inexperienced in the ways of the world, that I completely lost track of the day I was supposed to report for jury duty. Not good. That little indiscretion won me a personal face-to-face with the judge (which I did NOT forget), in which he demanded an accounting for why I had blown off my sacred civic duty (yeah. . . "I forgot" doesn't cut much ice with your average judge; and this judge was definitely on the 'stern' end of the judicial spectrum), and impressed on me most forcefully (including threats of future incarceration for Contempt of Court if such dereliction were to be repeated) that jury duty, and his court, were not matters to be trifled with. Lesson learned, and I received another summons a few weeks later.

This time, I appeared at the appointed time, and was ushered into the courtroom with a group of prospective jurors. My name was drawn, and I answered all the voir dire questions to the satisfaction of both attorneys, and the judge, and so I was ensconced as a member of the jury.

The case was a civil one - a Chinese woman, the wife of a doctoral student at MegaState U, had taken a job at a small import shop run by an immigrant Chinese gentleman, and she was claiming that he had reneged on several of her paychecks. Since neither the plaintiff nor the defendant spoke unbroken English, the court hired an interpreter (who was herself a graduate student), and virtually all of the testimony was given in Chinese and translated into English for the benefit of the jury.

The case itself devolved fairly quickly into a variation of 'he-said-she-said', with the plaintiff presenting her side of the story, supported by cancelled checks, and other forms of confirmation that he had acted according to a stated agreement, and after a certain point, the checks came farther apart, and for less money than was agreed. The defendant, on the other hand, presented himself as a large-hearted individual who was only trying to help his fellow-countrywoman, and this is the thanks he gets. And so on, et cetera. . .

Since it was a civil trial, there were only six jurors, which was probably just as well, all things considered. Our foreman was a university professor, who seemed temperamentally incapable of rendering any form of definitive judgment. All of our attempts to pin down a decision based on the evidence at hand were met with a whiny, "But you just don't know for certain, do you?" or somesuch, from him. The evidence was pretty clearly on the plaintiff's side, or so, at least, it seemed to five of us, after an hour's discussion or so, and then we spent two more hours trying to get Dr. Dithers to land on one side or the other (preferably the one we all agreed on, but even just to get him to commit to something over which we could argue with him would have been progress). At last, he allowed as to how it seemed most likely that the weight of the argument was on the plaintiff's side, and so we had our decision.

I had no problem with the decision we'd rendered, but the experience left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. Mainly that both sides had presented their case, and we were basically left to choose which side we thought was lying, and which was telling the truth (or, which side was telling more of the truth than the other). And besides which, our judgement in the plaintiff's favor was small enough that it wasn't certain that it would even cover what they'd end up paying their lawyer, who probably should have told them that. . .

I wasn't very happy for the experience, but I was satisfied that I had done my civic duty, and that was good enough.

-------------------------

The second case I sat on was a criminal trial - a rape case. A woman and a man were co-workers at a small manufacturing company, and they both worked the second shift, getting out of work around midnight. He invited her over to his house after work, she agreed, and between the two of them, they killed a twelve-pack of beer, after which he thought the stars were aligned for some sweet lovin' between the two of them. She disagreed, and he decided to, uh, press the issue. Among the evidence for the prosecution was a photograph of a hand-shaped bruise on the inside of her thigh.

The evidence was so compelling, to my mind, that, when we retired to the jury room for deliberation, I volunteered to be the foreman, just to save the time it would take to choose one, and my fellow jurors were only too happy to agree. With that piece of business out of the way, I took an initial straw vote, just to see where things stood. As I perceived the facts of the case, I thought it was possible, even likely, that we could have a conviction without having to spend too many hours in deliberation. The vote was 6-6 (I tell ya, life is just crammed full of 'learning moments').

I was stunned. I had thought that this was as cut-and-dried a case as it could be, but my education was just beginning. That jury of my peers (and even the realization that they were, and are, my peers, still causes me to shudder) still stands in my mind as a ruefully fascinating study of human nature at its very worst. . .

One woman announced, in the first minutes of the deliberations, that she wanted no part in any of the discussion, and when the rest of us got to 11-0, she would just vote with the majority. She then proceeded to lie down on the couch and take a nap. Sweet; I hope that, if you ever find your life in the hands of a jury of your peers, they take your case more seriously than you're taking this, Sweetheart.

Another woman had herself been a rape victim (and had baldly lied when asked during the empanelment whether she had ever been the victim of a crime). Which, you might think, would bias her against the defendant, but no. She had been an idiot to let herself get raped, she said, and this girl was an even bigger idiot than she was. Besides which, it became clear that she had some kind of 'identification' with the defendant; she didn't know him personally, but somehow, he was 'her kind of people', and she wasn't about to see him get sent off, just because some bimbo was a moron one night.

Yet another juror was a college guy, whose essential position, from which he wouldn't be moved, was that, basically (without saying it in so many words), there is no such thing as rape - all sex is consensual, but sometimes the girl regrets it later, and accuses the guy of rape. And so, as far as he was concerned, all charges of rape are de facto bogus. And there was another guy, just out of college, who wasn't quite so adamant as he was, but who basically sympathized with his point of view.

So then, out of the twelve of us, there were four who, right off the top, were more-or-less firmly disposed to corrupt the process.

But they weren't even the worst of it. One of our members was himself an attorney. And that, of course, was known right up-front, when his name was first pulled from the hat. But, as I recall, he was one of the last jurors selected, and both sides were running low on peremptory challenges, and so, much as they might have wanted to remove him from the jury, they didn't. The judge was sufficiently concerned about his presence on the jury that he gave us special instructions that, just because he was an attorney, he didn't know the law as it applied to this case, any better than any of us did, and we shouldn't give his thoughts any more weight than any other juror's, in our deliberations.

Yeah, fat chance of that. He played it very cool, and said very little at first. But when he did decide to speak, he just said, "I don't know - they both had an awful lot to drink. . ." And just like that, four of the jurors who had been inclined to convict, changed their vote, because, see, this guy was a lawyer, and he knows the law better than we do. . . (*sigh*) (*very EXASPERATED sigh*). So just that fast, we were 10-2 to acquit.

It took the majority another hour to convince the other 'convicting' juror, so that we stood 11-1, with me the only remaining vote to convict. The basic line of reasoning in favor of acquittal was that, since they'd both had so much to drink, how could anyone know where consent may or may not have been given? And there was a strong sentiment that for her even to go to his house after midnight carried with it a certain implied consent. And all I could say in response was that being an idiot doesn't mean you deserve to get raped. And a hand-shaped bruise on her thigh looked to me a lot like a lack of consent.

I'd like to tell you that, right out of Twelve Angry Men, I carried the courage of my convictions, and single-handedly convinced all the other jurors of my point of view, but I didn't. Eventually, I let myself get worn down on 'reasonable doubt', related to the large volume of alcohol consumed, and we voted to acquit. And I, being the foreman, had the duty and privilege to announce to the judge and the court what our verdict was, when, even as I said it, I knew in my gut that, whatever the law was here, this guy had done something that he should be being held accountable for, and we had let him off.

We returned to the jury room to gather our things before we left, and the prosecutor and the judge came back to us to discuss our decision with us. And I have to tell you that those little 'post-mortems' are one of the most utterly frustrating aspects of being on a jury. Because then the prosecutor told us the facts of the case that couldn't come out in court. This dude was a bad guy - a BAAAAD guy - who'd been in prison before, and just an all-around badass. "She's gonna have to leave town," the prosecutor said, regarding the victim. I was sick to my stomach.

After the other jurors left, I hung back and told the judge and the prosecutor about the other members of the jury, and how I thought they had failed in their duty. The judge shook her head, saying, "You always hope that you'll get a jury that takes their job seriously, but there are no guarantees." The prosecutor then told me how, when I announced the verdict, the defendant had very dramatically said "Thank you!" to the jury (which I'd seen, and which turned my stomach), at which our erstwhile rape-victim-juror smiled, and blew him a kiss, mouthing 'You're welcome' (which I hadn't seen, but which now made me puke in my mouth a little). It took me a few weeks to more-or-less 'get over' that experience, and my own sense of having failed miserably in my responsibility to do justice. . .

I'd like to tell you that that's the end of the story, but it isn't; not quite. A year or so later, I ran into the prosecutor (her daughter and mine played against each other in a grade-school basketball game). I recognized her, and went to talk to her, telling her that I still regretted not sticking to my guns on that case. She remembered the case, and told me not to worry about it, that rape cases are notoriously difficult to get convictions on, and so forth. Then she told me another piece of information that utterly stunned me. Our lawyer-juror, the guy who'd done so much, with so few words, to turn the deliberations toward acquittal, had actually himself been, at the time of the trial, accused of a domestic-violence charge, but that information didn't cross paths with his jury summons. So he'd had his own incentive to subvert the process. As bad as I thought our jury had been, it had been even worse than I'd thought. . .

-------------------------

So at that point, my experience of jury duty was pretty uniformly unhappy. One way or another, it had left a bad taste in my mouth, and even left me sick to my stomach. But these are only the first two chapters of my jury story. I'll save my other two trials for the next post. . .

10 comments:

Michelle H. said...

Thanks for the plug. Don't worry - my secret identity is still intact.

Wow! That had to be the hardest people to have in a jury. The types of information held back sickens my stomach. I can't believe the one jury who spurred the acquittal was allowed to stay for those proceedings because of his domestic violence charge.

I want to slap that woman who took a nap on the couch.

Can't wait to read the next chapter!

lime said...

what a pitiful excuse for a group of peers that second jury was. i'm sorry you had to be a part of it.

Cocotte said...

Ridiculous and disheartening, Des. I sat in as an alternate for a drunk driving trial in my 20's. The rest of the days in the 2 weeks was just sitting there waiting to see if your name was called. I guess this was before the call in thing.

I got called again about 5 years ago and our pediatrician wrote me an excuse letter since I have a child with a disability.

Sailor said...

That's profoundly disturbing, and really rather sad, in a way.

I've been called twice, once got empaneled as an alternate; the second time, excused because I was "involved in" the case (Firedepartment responds to motor vehicle accidents, and I was on the truck that day).

I'd like to think though, that the people that did sit eventually, weren't as bad as you describe. I sure hope not!

flutterby said...

Gosh... that is some BAD sampling of jurors. You must have been reeling from it all!!

I do my solemn best to avoid jury duty. I was summoned once and managed to get a pass because I had just started a new job out of college. And, knock on wood... nothing else has come my way, since.

Desmond Jones said...

Michelle - I think you could have gotten eleven other jurors to stand in line to slap her. . .

And, be careful what you ask for. . .

Lime - Scary, ain't it, that your fate, or mine, or someone's we love, could be in such hands?

Cocotte - I think being an alternate would be frustrating - you have to sit thru all the testimony, and then there's nothing to do with it. Actually, in the trials I've sat on, they just picked 14 jurors, and then picked two at the end to be excused. But heck, I suppose I could've avoided a lot of grief if I had been. . . ;)

Sailor - That group is far and away the worst I've ever been associated with. But then, I don't want to give away the other chapters. . . ;)

Flutter - I was sick to my stomach for a couple weeks afterwards. . .

And I've heard some jaw-dropping 'excuses' that folks have tried to get out of jury duty with. . .

Emily said...

That sounds really horrible.

But with convictions for rape charges so low (amazing, given the number of women who seem to have been raped or sexually abused and the number of charges that they don't bring forward in the first place), I guess we have to assume that's pretty standard.

It scares me, in retrospect, how easily I invited men over when I was younger - I was just so trusting...and lucky that it never happened to me

Desmond Jones said...

Hi, Em! Good to see you around these parts again!

It does kinda make you wonder, doesn't it? I would really hope that not all rape juries are like this one was. . .

And you know, I'm sure most all of us have stuff we look back on and shudder. . . God is very merciful. . .

Val said...

& now I'm sorry I scrolled down to read the initial parts of your jury-duty experiences...
It makes me angry enough to punch walls - absolutely, being an idiot, getting intoxicated in the wrong place w/the wrong person, does NOT mean you're to blame for being raped!
I fear for the future of the human race, truly I do.

Desmond Jones said...

Val - And I'm sorry that you're sorry. . .

But that's pretty much my thinking. . . She's not to blame, she didn't 'have it coming'; no, no, no, no, no.

And I have my days like that, too. Especially when I think that my kids will be living in a world even farther gone than the one I've lived in. But then, maybe they'll do better with their turn than we've done. . .