So, a few weeks ago, I get a jury summons. First, I am a little apprehensive – I knew we were going on vacation around that time, but I wasn’t quite sure which week it was. Once I verified that there was no conflict there, I wasn’t too worried. First, a lot of trials get called off before you go. Second, there is a fair chance of not even getting to the jury box for consideration by the parties. Third, the folk wisdom about such things is that nobody wants a lawyer on their panel.
From the title, I presume you can tell that I cleared the gauntlet of 1 through 3. I called the court the night before and the recorded message told me to report the next morning. Since I work and park downtown, I had one less hassle than most jurors — parking can be a drag. Especially this week – I heard the county had three jury trials. When you report, the bailiff takes attendance and then not too long after shows a little prepared film on jury duty. (I had brought a book, prepared for a lot of downtime, but there just wasn’t much in my case.)
The dynamic in the jury room is initially a little awkward. Lots of strangers not knowing whether to talk to each other or what to say. There is sporadic small talk broken by stretches of awkward silences. Amusingly, the judge of the court we were in had actually turned up on the jury list for that day. He had reviewed the file and had to excuse himself. I wonder if the dynamic would have been different with him in there.
I think we were mostly glad for the informational video they showed us. It was informative and fairly well done, but just a little hokey for my tastes. There is a scene where your host is standing with his suit coat slung over his shoulder. What? Couldn’t find a place to put your coat for the scene?
When it was time to go into the court room, they had us line up. I was the 7th person in line. Turned out it was a criminal trial (meaning 12 jurors instead of 6), so I was in the jury box right away. Voir dire is, again, a social situation nobody really has any background for. The judge goes through some minimum requirements to serve. When that didn’t disqualify anyone, they turned it over to the lawyers.
Ostensibly, the process is to discover and eliminate bias among jurors. And, while it’s used for that, lawyers are also trying to take advantage by framing their case, making you receptive to their view of things, and, if they’re lucky, discover favorable bias. Maybe I’m not that good of a lawyer, but in my opinion, jury selection strategies are mostly voodoo. It might make you feel good thinking you are working to hedge your bets, but I don’t think there is a reliable way of using that process to get far enough into a juror’s head to know how they are going to react to the evidence that comes out in a trial.
Certainly I had a lot of my fellow jurors all wrong. Ones I thought were likely to be sympathetic probably could have been hanging judges in the wild-west, and those I thought would be eager to convict were looking high and low for reasonable doubt.
They asked me some questions. My chronic inability to see just one side of an issue must have allayed some fears. (“On the one hand . . . but on the other hand . . .”) We found out that this was a marijuana case. I allowed as how, left to my own devices, I’d probably support decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana, but on the other hand, that’s not how I saw my role in this process. The General Assembly had ruled on the legality of the action, my job was just going to be to determine whether the State had proved the elements of the crime defined by the General Assembly. In this case – possession of marijuana, dealing marijuana, and possession of amphetamine.
The potential jurors were excused while the court and lawyers discussed something and went through strikes. (Jurors can be stricken for cause and each side gets three peremptory strikes — you can get rid of someone just because you don’t like their haircut.) I was surprised to find that I had moved up from juror 7 to juror 4 and I was on the panel. They got 9 seated during the first round. Two more rounds got us to 12 jurors and an alternate. And, might I say, bless the alternate juror! This guy had opinions and very much wanted to get into the mix, but his role in the process is to watch everything and shut up. Only if one of the original 12 is dismissed can he get involved in the discussions. When the matter was concluded, he was fairly bursting with observations.
The case itself was pretty simple. I got lucky inasmuch as I always wanted to participate on a jury, but, while it is a core civic duty, it is always a big old monkey wrench in your day-to-day life. During one of the breaks on the first day, I got a text message from my wife that she’d been in a car crash. Nothing major – some guy rear ended our car while she was stopped at a stop sign. Rear vehicle damage, but everybody was ok. Being in the middle of a jury trial, I couldn’t do much more than verify that everyone was alright. I also got behind on some work – which isn’t as awful for me because I work in the system; pretty much everyone I come into contact with fully understands about having to be a juror. (I had to cancel being a pro tem judge in one of the other courts.) But down the hall, I heard that there was a murder trial, expected to go a couple of weeks. Ours lasted two days. Getting my jury experience in a two day dose was just about right for me.
Like I said, the case was relatively simple. Some officers had been called to a local apartment complex with a lot of section 8 housing. Place has a lot of problems and, consequently, the police spend a lot of time keeping an eye on the place. I don’t feel like using real names, so let’s just say that Abe had a history of domestic violence with Bea. A restraining order prohibiting Abe from being there was in place. An officer who had seen Abe get into a particular Impala the night of the domestic dispute saw that vehicle at the apartment on a different night. One officer went around to the back, the other officer knocked on the door. Carl answered. The officer around back had a view of the apartment through the back glass door. Carl had been laying on an air mattress in the living room when he got up and walked to the door. When the door opened, there was a strong smell of marijuana coming out. The trespass investigation had just turned into a drug investigation.
Carl said no one else was home. Then he changed his mind a bit and said that Bea was home. Then there was a bit of unpleasantness where Carl was either slow or reluctant to put his beer bottle down and sit on the ground. But, without any force on anyone’s part, Carl was sat down and detained with handcuffs. The officer in the back came around to the front. (These are long apartment buildings and it takes a bit to get from one side to the other.) Bea came out – it was her apartment, and the officers got her permission to search. It was just chock full of marijuana. There were tupperware containers next to the couch with something like 100+ grams, a couple of scales, and a lot of baggies of the sort used to distribute.
It didn’t end up mattering a lot to our consideration, but one of the more disturbing images was a picture of a bunch of weed out on the counter, kind of sitting askew on top of a kid’s doll. Bea had 3 kids living there. Downstairs the odor was strong. Upstairs, it was fairly weak. In a downstairs closet, there was a pair of pants with Carl’s ID. There was another pair of pants in the closet with amphetamine.
Carl’s story about why he was there didn’t really hold up. He said it was all Abe’s. Abe (who initially he had said wasn’t there) must have slipped out at the exact right time when the police weren’t watching the back door and couldn’t see him moving around the apartment.
Anyway, given evidence including the location of the marijuana at the time of the arrest, the fact that the odor was pretty strong downstairs, and the fact that no one else was downstairs and Carl had said Abe wasn’t there and that Carl’s proffered reason for being there didn’t hold up, I felt like the State got beyond reasonable doubt on the possession charge. And, while it was pretty clear someone was dealing and while I thought it was awfully likely Carl was dealing, I didn’t think the State got beyond reasonable doubt. It was at least reasonable to think maybe Carl was just using his dealer-buddy’s stuff without being a dealer himself. As for the amphetamines, I didn’t think the State had enough evidence that they were Carl’s pants. Being in a closet underneath pants with Carl’s ID made it a distinct possibility, but that was about it.
The lawyers were pretty good about keeping on track, but they digressed into Carl’s background and personal life. Didn’t make a bit of difference to me as to whether he was guilty of the charges in question, and I got the feeling that these digressions were pretty irrelevant to my fellow jurors as well.
The lawyers were a pretty good contrast in styles – you had the young deputy prosecutor using the court’s snazzy technology versus the grizzled defense lawyer using his trusty legal pads. Both had their advantages. (I was mentally taking notes about how to improve my own presentations.)
When the case was given to the jury, I knew there was a pretty good chance I was going to wind up being foreman. It’s kind of natural to stick the lawyer with the job. I sort of begged off, suggesting that I’d do it if no one else wanted the job, but saying I’d gladly defer to anyone else who had interest. No one did, so I was foreman.
First off, we had to learn each other’s names; so we sat ourselves in our juror number order and gave our names. Next, I wrote down the three charges and identified the elements in each that were in dispute. (For example, one element was that the item be in question be marijuana – but no one was suggesting that the substance was anything else.) Really what we had to determine was whether Carl possessed the marijuana and/or the amphetamines and, if he possessed the marijuana, whether he did so with intent to distribute. We went around the circle and had everyone offer their thoughts on the three counts.
There was mostly agreement on what had happened, where the gaps were in the evidence, and who was credible and who wasn’t. But, even so, we discovered that the concept of reasonable doubt is awfully slippery. The jury instructions articulate it for you, but since absolute certainty isn’t required and isn’t usually possible about anything, it’s tough to know when that glimmer of a potential doubt grows big enough to cross over to “reasonable.” Still, the jurors I worked with were diligent; no one got mad or frustrated or disagreeable.
Occasionally, we’d talk a relevant point to death – not having persuaded one another as to whether a doubt was reasonable or unreasonable, and we’d sort of stray off to interesting aspects of the case that weren’t, strictly speaking, relevant to the elements in question. (“I wonder why this or that . . . ; Oh well, guess it doesn’t matter.”) When we’d sort of looked away from a point of disagreement for awhile and then returned, we’d found that a juror or two had come around on this point or that. And so it went until we were unanimous on guilty for possession of marijuana and not guilty on the other charges.
We reported our verdict to the court, and then we were dismissed. The judge did a nice job of debriefing us a bit in his chambers after we’d been dismissed; making a point to emphasize how important the role of the juror is and to make sure the jurors knew their participation was appreciated.
I’ve written this all in one take, feeling it was maybe better to get it all out before my memory faded rather than spending much effort making it pretty or fluid. I might go back later and try to clean it up.