My Day in Court Part 2

This is a continuation about my experience as a recent juror. The back story begins here.

As I talked about, I was in the jury pool of 20 people, 10 of which would be part of the jury proper, though eight would decide the case (two being the alternates). I was the ninth name on the list, so unless some of the 1 through 8 jurors had to leave, I was not part of the main group. But before that, we had some wonderful waiting time. When you take 20 people, put them in a small room with only about 10 chairs, close the door, and leave for a while, it gets a bit warm. Conversations happen, but they can be very divergent, and several times it would die in its tracks. (That may have been my fault in moving the conversation forward, but I’m irresponsible and won’t believe that.)

Eventually we were taken into the court room. The judge’s bench was at the back wall by the door we entered in, and the legal teams on either side. Opposite all this was a semi-circle with the 10 chairs for the main jurors, with more chairs behind for the remaining potential jurors and any interested audience members. Our seating was pre-determined, but we actually had to reverse it since one of the lawyers had the seating going from left to right (from the juror’s perspective) rather than the other way. After a bit of musical chairs, we began the voir dire process. The judge asked the first questions, some of them basic but necessary (i.e. can you read and understand English?). One of the prosecuting attorneys then started asking questions, some asked of all the jurors, some of individuals. Most of the questions made sense when it comes to figuring out if someone isn’t what they want in the box making decisions (i.e. what do you think of the police (the primary source of testimony)? have you had a DUI in the past (the case was related to this)?). No question was directed at me by name, though when the attorney asked if we knew what circumstantial evidence was I was the only one that claimed any such knowledge. Fortunately I didn’t embarrass myself.

After this, the main defense attorney asked a series of questions. While the prosecutor was methodical and systematic in his process, the defense was less so, basically being personable and getting along with the jurors. Again a series of general and specific questions were asked, and only then was I singled out. He wanted to know what I was a student of, which was a bit surprising to him, and he asked if I ever baked anything. My guess is he wanted to see if I was someone that would follow instructions, but that isn’t certain.

Once the questioning was over, the attorneys came up to the judge for some private discussion while we all sat there. Afterward I realized they were deciding who wasn’t going to be a juror. I was suspecting that I was going to be off. I had been told by one of my bosses/co-workers that lawyers tend to kick scientists off, and Neil deGrasse Tyson has mentioned on his Twitter account how he was kicked off because he, as a scientist, found eye-witness testimony to be the weakest form of evidence. So I was suspecting that I may get booted as well, though I didn’t say I wouldn’t convict based on only eye-witnesses. Partially I was hoping to be let go because of my work schedule, partially I wanted to be on because I wanted to weigh the evidence of a case for the first time in my life. After those deliberations, several names were called. I was not one of them. And those few names were thanked for their service and they could leave. I remained and became Juror #4. If the case went the whole way, I would be part of the decision of guilt of the defendant.

That was all for that Wednesday, the time getting close to 5, so we were instructed to be in by 8:30 the next morning for opening statements and evidence. I’m not a morning person, and I had a lab to teach that morning as well, so I was rushing and sending emails to try to find someone at the last minute to fill in for me (and I didn’t know someone actually did fill in until Friday), but contempt of court was not something I wanted to try out. So, I made sure my alarms were set (I use two because one occasionally fails me), and I made it in plenty early, as did most of the others.

So we are set and ready to go at 8:30, expecting to be called at 9 AM. 9:15 goes by, and we realize there is a lot of hurry-up-and-wait going on in this system. By about 9:30 we, the jurors, we back up in the waiting room next to the court. Now, you would expect the conversation to be about the upcoming case, but some of the instructions we received were that we could not do any of our own research, including looking at the place of the incident, reading newspaper articles on the subject, and so on. We also could not talk about the details of the trial with the other jurors until we were sent off to make our decision. That morning we didn’t even know what the charges were, but when the main topic on everyone’s mind is off-limits and it’s early in the morning, that can be a bit stifling. Soon enough we were in the court to hear the charges and opening statements.

I won’t say who the defendant was or the particulars of the charges besides that it involved cars and alcohol, the primary cases that are dealt with in the municipal courts. In those opening statements the basics of the incident were laid out, what the charges were, and what was to be proved. The case would revolve primarily around the testimony of the officers on the scene and a close friend of the defendant. The defense was apparently going for something technical in trying to prove that there was only circumstantial evidence of the intoxicated operation of a vehicle and thus reasonable doubt. Depending on the testimony involved, that seemed like a thin twig to rest a defense on, but I didn’t know the facts of the case yet. Was this the case of officers harassing someone, waiting for some little trip-up? How good of a witness was the friend of the defendants? We had to see, and I tried to stay open-minded about it.

The prosecution went first with calling witnesses (oh, interesting fact, the defense doesn’t have to make a case; they just have to show the state hasn’t gotten past reasonable doubt which can be done through the cross-examination), both of which were the officers that came to the scene on the night of the incident. Again, I’m avoiding details since I don’t know what really should be out in public, so bear with me. Nonetheless, the first officer was asked some questions the defense didn’t debate, one of which may have undercut the defense witness’ testimony before it was even given. The defense instead treated the officer respectfully and slowly introduced some minor issues with the report as it was given; they seemed minor or innocent enough, but they were jabs that were well-placed. Every so often in the questioning process there would be some objection that was discussed with the lawyers and judge which I could not make out (on purpose), though the stenographer recorded it all. I tried to see what sorts of strategies were going on, but it doesn’t help watching a chess match when you missed three moves every 15 minutes.

While the first officer handled himself well, including under cross-examination, the second officer seemed more uneasy, and for all I know it may have been his first time on the witness stand. Apparently he had earlier been chewed out by the judge for wanting to take up some documents for memory’s sake, which isn’t allowed, so that can explain in part why he was flustered. This was also disconcerting for the prosecution, so they walked away from some of the points that were making his testimony difficult. When that was done, the defense didn’t do any cross-examination. Now, it was not too long after 11, but a 5-minute recess was called. I was guessing that this five minutes would last longer and then become lunch break, and my prophecy came true. (Take THAT Sylvia Browne!) So we, the jurors, were taken down to the main jury waiting area for lunch, and we had pizza. It was supposed to be the last day of jury duty (unless you were on a case that went longer–in other words, me), so there was a pizza order in celebration. So, we had pizza, and a couple of the other judges talked about their service both in the courts and elsewhere. One of the judges apparently had been in the state legislature as well as on Oprah. By 1:30, we expected to get called up again, while the remaining people had to wait until there were no more potential trials that day.

1:30 went by, and not long after it was announced that the last trials had ended, so everyone not in a jury trial were done with their duty and could go home. I and the other nine had to wait to be called up and continue the case. I was suspecting that we may get done with the witnesses that day since the defense had only one. Perhaps closing arguments would happen then and Friday we could make our decision. After a while we were taken up by the bailiff to return to the jury waiting room by the court. Again we had to sit tight for a while, and I think it was then we noted the bar on the side of the room. It looked like what you would connect handcuffs to, so perhaps it used to be a defendant-holding room, not being used to hold potentially-escaping jurors.

Around 2 o’clock, we came back into the court, but the lawyers were not in then. The judge was sitting up there, waiting for us to be seated. Apparently, during the break the judge had declared a mistrial. I hadn’t a clue what could have been brought up that would lead to this, but the judge explained what happened and his decision. The prosecution had included the past history of the defendant in which he/she (I won’t given away the gender) had done the same or similar crime, which is supposed to be admissible under state guidelines. However, the city or county guidelines did not have the same wording, a point which the defense had just figured out the night before. So, the defense had a trap for the prosecution; if they used the prior incidents in the trial (and they knew the prosecution would because the prosecutors have to tell the defense what evidence they will use), then they could say that it was inadmissible. That technicality meant that the jury could not consider this past history.

So, the judge had to choose: tell the jury to ignore the point of past incidents in their decision or call a mistrial. In reality, there is no way to believer that such a thing could be ignored once a juror has heard it, and I doubt that bias would not have been working about in my head. So, instead of going through the whole trial, getting a possible guilty verdict and have it appealed, the judge called a mistrial and let the process start over. I think that was the right decision and a better use of the court’s time.

Since we had time to kill, the jurors and the judge had some Q&A so we understood what happened and what would happen next. The detail of the wording of the county guidelines will almost certainly be fixed-up in the next few weeks or so, but in the meantime every defense lawyer in the area knows about this and will use it for as long as they can. We also learned that the records of the trial are not for public consumption, so I won’t have a copy of it. This was particularly “upsetting” to one juror who wanted the record to show that he didn’t think highly of his mother-in-law. So I probably won’t know about the details of what happened behind the scenes, just the result.

So, as it stands, the defendant is free for now, and a trial could begin again in a month or so, depending on a million of legal technicalities. As for my participation, I didn’t decide any cases, nor did anyone else that I serve with during these two weeks. This apparently had been exceptional for the county courts, so don’t think this is the norm. I don’t know how many jury trials actually do not have the jury make the final decision, but it doesn’t seem to be that uncommon. (My mother also had this happen; during deliberations the defendant changed his/her plea, so the jury’s decision didn’t matter; in a way that was fortunate because they felt there was reasonable doubt (though they suspected nonetheless), so the plea change meant the defendant was getting jail time.)

Overall, I found jury duty much less a hassle than you would figure. Much of it is waiting around, and you can be productive otherwise, or at least entertained enough to stop going made. You also get to see the legal system in action at the local level. Since I did fulfill my constitutional obligation, I shouldn’t be called again for two years or more, but I may be moving out of here before then, resetting that buffer to zero. We’ll see. So, if you are not getting registered to vote (or getting a driver’s license) to avoid being a juror, please reconsider. It’s not only not bad, it has its perks, not to mention having some sense of importance to your community.


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