Friday, April 15, 2016

Jury duty for beginners

kw: civic duties, jury duty

I was getting close to finishing a book, when I was assigned to jury duty. The way it works here is this: A month beforehand you get a letter. It includes a questionnaire you need to fill out and send in. You are allowed to ask to be excused, but you need a very, very good excuse. There is a phone number that you are instructed to call after 5:30 the evening before your assignment begins, to see if you will still need to report. There is a long recorded message that tells you whether your group must report, and if so, it is followed by a long message telling you where and when and how to report, and what to bring and what not to bring. About half the time your group or "jury pool" will be excused in the first phone message. Frequently a larger than usual number of cases will be resolved without trial, either by a plea bargain arrangement in a criminal case, or a pre-trial settlement between contending parties in a civil trial. Then one or more groups of candidate jurors will be excused in the phone message. In the past twenty years I have received the letter six times, but have actually had to go to the courthouse only three times.

A jury assignment is one day or one trial. If the phone message says you must come in, there is a 3-4 minute message, and you need to listen to all of it. It boils down to this:

  • Where to park, with the proviso that only the first 165 jurors will get their parking pass validated by the court and thus receive free parking.
  • Where and when to enter the courthouse. In my case, the time was 8:30 AM, and the doors to the building open at 8:15, so getting there too early on a cold day is not advised.
  • What to bring: The letter, any book you might want to read—you might be there six hours or more—and money or credit card to buy lunch if needed.
  • What not to bring: Anything electronic, such as cell phone, computer, or tablet, nor a camera (digital or film) or any device containing a camera. Even a FitBit is disallowed. No food or drink allowed.
  • During jury service on subsequent days we were allowed to bring our lunch and drinks and snacks.
So, I was to report, if required, on Tuesday, April 12, 2016. When I called, my group, Group 1, was required to report, and I did serve on a trial. Here is a timeline of the events:

Timeline (approximate; from memory, transcribed daily)
Day 1, 4/12

  • 0815 Arrive and park
  • 0820 Enter the courthouse and pass through Security
  • 0835 Long line; check in; get parking pass validated. The juror candidate waiting room holds ~300. more than half full.
  • 0845 Welcome by a judge.
  • 0850 Opening instructions; people are called up to make corrections or additions to the questionnaire they mailed in, or to fill one out otherwise.
  • 0900 More instructions; roll call.
  • 0920 I headed to restroom, but the call came to send the first group to a courtroom, so I returned to the waiting room; I was not called.
  • 0930 Got my restroom time.
  • 0935 Got a soda and sat in "cybercafe" reading.
  • 0950 Another group is called to a courtroom; this time I am included. A bailiff instructed us and led us to Court 6A.
  • 1045 60 of us had been called. One (initials C.C.) didn't answer, but clerk missed it. Only 59 made it to courtroom, causing the bailiff some concern.
  • 1105 Voir dire (preliminary questions) begins. The judge outlined the case. Questions are asked of us such as, "Do you know anyone involved in this case?" or "Do you have concerns you may not be able to be impartial in this kind of case?" 20 have a Yes answer and go to speak to the judge and the lawyers. This is one kind of "sidebar", held at the end of the judge's desk farthest from the jury. During any sidebar the bailiff turns on a white noise machine that hisses at us through speakers above the jury box and the spectators' benches, so we can't possibly hear what they say.
  • 1145 Voir dire ends. 15 were excused and 5 retained, leaving 44 for the challenge phase. 12 of us (including me) are called to the jury box. Lawyers for both sides have a number of "peremptory challenges" they can issue, and also they can give a reason to excuse someone.
  • 1205 After both legal teams are "content", we have a panel of 12 plus 2 alternates. 11 have been excused, so 19 are left in the potential jury pool. At some point "C.C." is called, and is not there. Now they know who went missing (I don't know what they do about it). The judge issues pre-trial instructions to us.
  • 1220 The judge releases us for lunch, with instructions to re-start proceedings at 2PM. The bailiff, Jose, takes us to the jury deliberation room, and tells us to return by 1:45 so he can get us into the courtroom on time. Some time is given to Q&A. We get big "JUROR" stickers so people will know not to talk to us.
  • 1235 We head out for lunch, and are shown where to meet the bailiff at 1:45 (1345). I get a sandwich at a Dunkin Donuts in the subbasement. I sit and eat with two other jurors; we talk about "everything but".
  • 1345 We meet the bailiff at the designated spot and he takes us to our room.
  • 1410 The bailiff ushers us to the courtroom. The trial begins. It is announced that one witness will use interpretation from Spanish. A couple more questions are asked about knowledge of Spanish. Two jurors are taken to speak to the judge, and pass muster. The judge wants to be sure that their understanding of Spanish won't cause them to neglect the interpretation, otherwise they might have a different take than the rest of us on what was said.
  • 1420 Opening arguments by a prosecutor, then by the defense attorney.
  • 1445 The judge announces a break. We spend it in the deliberation room.
  • 1505 Back to the courtroom. Testimony begins.

Outline of the case: The defendant, Marshall Brown, is alleged to have been one of at least three men who invaded a home in Townsend last year. Six people were in the home, the homeowner, a woman aged 71 (as she testified), her daughter, her granddaughter, the granddaughter's boyfriend and the couple's two small children ages 1 and 3. Shots were fired by and at the daughter; only she was hit, and in the leg. The boyfriend was beaten and money taken from him. He and his girlfriend's mother were hospitalized as a result. The three invading men wore disguises and gloves, but left evidence behind in a rush to leave after two of the women called 911. No other details are needed here.

Testimony was taken from the three adult women.

  • 1625 The judge recesses for the night. We will resume at 10AM. The bailiff takes us back to our room for final instructions and tells us to meet him at the same spot as before at 9:45. We go home.

Day 2, 4/13

  • 0915 Arrive to park; the lot is full; I park at DoubleTree, a block north. I don't have a pass that can be validated so I'll have to pay. We will receive $20 daily for lunch and parking.
  • 0945 We meet Jose at a hallway corner, from which we all proceed to our deliberation room.
  • 1020 Proceedings begin. The boyfriend testifies through an interpreter, but sometimes answers before the interpreter can interpret, and sometimes he answers in English. We also hear testimony by the officer who first responded to the 911 calls.
  • 1110 A break is announced.
  • 1125 We return, to hear testimony from the other police officers and detectives on the case. We hear testimony from the detective who collected the evidence and took photos. We and he are shown about 50 photos, which he identifies and describes.
  • 1215 Lunch is called; we are to return at 1:15 PM. 
  • 1330 Proceedings resume. We hear testimony from experts in fingerprints and DNA.
  • 1410 A break is announced.
  • 1430 We hear testimony from the nurse who treated the woman who was shot and see photos of the entry and exit wounds in her upper thigh.
  • 1600 The judge recesses for the night. We will resume at 10AM.

Day 3, 4/14

  • 0845 I park in the courthouse parking lot.
  • 1020 Proceedings begin. We hear testimony from the primary detective. The prosecution rests its case.
  • 1115 A break is announced.
  • 1145 We return; the defense calls a single witness, the defendant's mother. The defense rests.
  • 1215 Lunch is called; we are to return at 1:45 PM.
  • 1400 Proceedings resume. We hear closing arguments by first the prosecution, then the defense. Finally the prosecution is given a short, last word. At some point we have an unscheduled 15-minute break because the court stenographer's machine breaks. This interrupts the defense attorney's closing argument, requiring her to revisit a portion of it.
  • 1600 The judge, not wishing to give us 30-45 minutes of closing instructions and then send us home immediately, recesses for the night. We will resume at 9AM.

Day 4, 4/15

  • 0815 I park in the courthouse parking lot.
  • 0835 We are taken to the jury deliberation room. One juror doesn't show up. After a marshal fails to contact him, one of the alternates is chosen.
  • 0930 The trial resumes. The judge thanks us, and dismisses the alternate juror who is not needed any more. The judge reads instructions for the jury and the law's stipulations regarding each count against the defendant.
  • 1015 We are sent to deliberate. This takes a while to get going. We have been given all the evidence that was presented, except that a firearm has a lock on the trigger. We determine that we need a DVD player to view again the detectives' interview with the defendant. We send a note with the bailiff.
  • 1100 The bailiff brings a menu and order sheet from a local deli, because it is clear we will be here through lunch. We continue discussions while the order sheet passes around.
  • 1130 The bailiff returns and we send the lunch order with him.
  • 1215 The bailiff brings the requested DVD player and a screen on a stand. We set it up and begin to view, but the bailiff returns with our lunch orders. We break to eat, and continue discussing in a desultory way.
  • 1245 We play the DVD twice; the second time we skip a couple of parts. It helps clarify what we recall and determine some conflicts that neither legal team has mentioned.
  • 1430 It is clear that we have an impasse on the main charge. The whole "crime" includes two events that are 12 days apart. The defendant was most likely present the first time, when the robbers cased the house, but for 10 of us, it is not established that he participated in the second event, the actual overt crime. We seem in better agreement that he is at least "in the know", and thus guilty of conspiracy. We send a note asking the judge if, by finding him guilty of that one charge, we are then constrained to find him guilty of all.
  • 1500 The judge summons us to the courtroom where he explains that all charges are independent and are to be judged separately.
  • 1510 Back to the room. We vote, and find that we are split 9-to-3 on just the conspiracy charge, the 9 being for "guilty", and the 3 for "not guilty" being different from the 2 who are for "guilty on all counts", while the other 10 are for judging "not guilty", primarily because of the poor prosecution.
  • 1500 We are at an impasse. We ask the bailiff how to declare that we are hung. He tells us, and we send the appropriate note. We are immediately summoned to the courtroom.
  • 1510 In the courtroom, the judge announces a mistrial, based on the hung jury. He thanks us and sends us back to the room where he will speak with us. In the deliberation room he tells us not to feel bad, that it is now up to the prosecutors to decide if they want to retry the case or drop the charges. One way or another the case will be completed. It is not up to him to dismiss it.

There is a lot of detail here. The singular lessons are

  1. There is a lot of waiting, for many reasons. One in particular: during jury deliberations, if one member must leave the room, such as to use a restroom (there are two just adjacent), or to pass a question for the judge to the bailiff, all discussion must stop until all 12 of us are present.
  2. In both civil and criminal cases, settlements or plea bargains most frequently happen at the last minute, on the day for the trial, when juror candidates have been brought into the waiting area. Their presence puts pressure on the parties if they feel any ambivalence about their chances of winning a jury trial.
  3. The bailiff is your biggest friend during a trial. Our bailiff, Jose, was one of the best. On the third day he had a scheduled day off. The bailiff that day was competent, but not nearly to Jose's standard. It makes a difference.
  4. The police detectives did a pretty good job, but we could see there was a certain amount of sloppy work. A lot of evidence was produced, most of it pretty useless to us.
  5. We really wished certain questions had been asked. The one eyewitness to the defendant's likely presence, at least on the earlier date, was not asked to identify him in court. There was no "That's the man!" moment. The one eyewitness who looked deep into one attacker's eyes during the invasion event was not asked if the eyes of the defendant were the same. I was expecting a Perry Mason moment when a ski mask was pulled over his head and he was brought close to the witness. Maybe she'd been asked if they could do this and declined, being too terrified of being that close to him again. It is quite possible.
  6. Eyewitness testimony is seldom of high quality. Circumstantial evidence is much more reliable. Either this or that item was in such and such a place, or it wasn't. But in this case too much hung on a single fingerprint (possibly among many; the evidence analyst never said), which was on a roll of duct tape. At a construction site, everyone's fingerprints get on every roll of duct tape! The defendant worked in construction.

I am sorry we could not produce a verdict. I am not sorry for this experience. Potential jurors are not required to serve after the age of 70. By the time I am again eligible, I'll be well over 70, so I guess this was my last chance to serve on a jury.

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