Monday, January 23, 2012

A Jury of his Peers

It was August 2007, I had been called to Jury Duty. Most people will agree that this never happens at a convenient time. This was particularly so for me but this was particularly so at this time - I was called to report on a Monday; the subject of my recently completed documentary, Jerry Andrus had just died of advanced Prostate cancer two days previously on Sunday. My mother-in-law, Wanda, had just been released by the hospital; she was at home under the care of Hospice.

The jury had been selected and I was included. The defendant had been charged with Unauthorized Use of a Motor Vehicle. The case laid out something like this:
Two guys were roommates sharing a rental in another city. “Skinny” had some decades old high-mileage muscle car, a GTO. His roommate,“Heavy Guy”, wanted to buy the car from his roommate. The arrangement between them was that Heavy could drive the car all he wanted until he could scrape enough money together to buy it from Skinny.

This arrangement went along fine until one weekend Heavy took the GTO on a long trip to our town. Heavy had borrowed the care for long trips before, however, during this trip the car broke down. Heavy managed to limp this clunker to his girl friend’s house where it sat in her driveway until the repair shop opened on Monday. Heavy managed to get the car to a shop but he didn’t have the money to pay for the repairs; Heavy would need to ask his mother to wire some money to him.

In the mean time Skinny notices that Heavy hasn’t returned the car following the weekend. Word gets to Skinny that his car is broken down in our town; pissed, he calls the police here. The police find the broken down car in the local girlfriend’s driveway. The situation is explained; everyone knows where the car is. The next day Heavy is arrested for essentially stealing the car.
So I’m sitting in the jury box listening to this testimony all the while wondering what the crime is? This seems more like a major misunderstanding has occurred, and a lack of courtesy... but a crime?!I am wondering why the prosecution even brought this trial to court; did a junior prosecutor need some practical court room experience? Remarkably during the entire trial, NO physical evidence is submitted, not one shred – the case is based entirely on whether Skinny gave Heavy permission to take this car. It's Skinny's word against Heavy's.

Skinny appears in court as a witness in a smart suit and tie; he’s young and good looking. His pretty girl friend is with him in court. Heavy, the defendant is overweight and not all that attractive; his shirt is untucked and clearly could use a hair cut.

The judge sends us into deliberation. This being my second time on a jury I decide I will set myself up to be the Foreman. I purposely sit myself at the head of the big conference table in the Jury room. I’m wanting to drive this process so I can wrap this up quickly and I can get back to my family and dying mother-in-law. I ask if anyone else wants to be the foreman; nope – so I am now foreman.

I summarize the case: Skinny has allowed Heavy borrow his car repeatedly over a period of months on the hope that Heavy will by this Junker from him. The junker breaks down out of town and they have a problem. I’m thinking most of the jury is thinking as I; what we have here is a failure to communicate resulting in an over-response by a pissed off car owner. I ask for a view of hands how many of the jurors think Heavy is NOT guilty.

Three people raise their hands. My jaw drops.

The standard for determining guilt in a criminal trial is that 10 or 12 jurors must believe that the defendant is guilty Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. Apparently what looks to me like a simple misunderstanding is going to result in a felony conviction for a guy who I don’t think deserves it. I’m surprised to find myself in the minority opinion.

The afternoon wears on, we deliberate. We note there is no evidence, no third-party witnesses or testimony other than the defendant and witness. We note that these guys are not total strangers, that the defendant made no attempt to hide the vehicle, sell it, etc. In fact, he was actually trying to have it repaired at his expense. He's had the car to the shop to get an estimate for repairs, he just needs the money to do the work.

It’s getting dark, the court clerks takes our dinner orders. I call agian for a vote – half the people want to send this kid to prison. The deliberations become heated. One guy, one of these types who wears baggy shorts and his baseball cap on backwards, has clearly developed a grudge against me. Another woman is crocheting; this jury looks like it was put together by Central Casting. What has become abundantly clear to me is that the term “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” is analogous to these people as “I believe truly truly in my heart of hearts”. We are deadlocked. It’s late Monday night; we go home to sleep and must reconvene tomorrow.

I go home despondent. I can’t talk about the trial to my wife, but I can tell her how upset I am. She has spent all day with her mother who is slipping in and out of a coma. Out of town family have arrived at her mother’s home; her end is very near. I feel I am the only person standing between people who would send a guy to prison over a stupid disagreement. I am convinced that if the defendant were a good looking, nicely dressed young man, he’s probably walk. My jury figures that if the guy has gone to trial, that alone must mean he's guilty. I have a poor night’s sleep.

The following morning I arrive early in the jury room before anyone else has arrived. I write on the white board with red markers:
"Preponderance of Evidence"
"Clear and Convincing Evidence"
"Beyond a Reasonable Doubt"

I don’t sit, but stand at the head of the room next to the white board as each juror comes into the room and takes their seat. After the final juror arrives, I begin to speak.

I explain that there are several different standards for making decisions in a court case. For example in a civil case, each party may be partially responsible for what happened. In order to come to a decision we jurors wold have to decide which party is more likely guilty than the other. But we cannot do that in this case. I draw a big X through Preponderance of Evidence.

I then say that again, mostly in civil cases, one side says the other is guilty, the other says they aren’t. In these situations a jury needs to decide which side’s position is more substantially true than not. But again, we are not allowed to send a man to jail because we are leaning more this way than that. I draw another big red X through Clear and Convincing Evidence.

That leaves us with Beyond a Reasonable doubt. It doesn’t mean you are pretty convinced Heavy is guilty; it doesn’t mean that you feel it in your gut that Heavy is guilt – it means that you have NO DOUBT whatsoever that Heavy is guilty.

I point out that it is Skinny’s word against Heavy’s. There is no evidence to weigh one mans word over the other. There are no witnesses to confirm what either of these men said to one another. I further say that Heavy may indeed be guilty, but is there a possibility that he is NOT and that this is a misunderstanding that has blown out of proportion? If we don't know FOR SURE we must acquit him.

I call for a vote – 2 guilty, 10 NOT guilty. In Oregon it only requires 10 out of 2 to decide a trial. I don’t even attempt to turn the two remaining jurors; backward hat boy voting against me, not his conscience. Crochet woman is an idiot. But I cut my losses, quickly informing the clerk we have a verdict before anyone changes their mind. Moments later everyone is walking out of the courthouse.

As I rush directly from court to my mother-in-law’s home I chisel two important facts into my brain: The name of Heavy’s defense lawyer so I NEVER hire him as my defense attorney, and secondly, that if I am EVER accused of a crime, I’ll NEVER ask for a jury trial but instead leave my fate to a judge.

Later that evening Wanda slips briefly out of her coma. She is surrounded by her family, children and grand children. She peacefully loses consciousness and is gone.

[Between composing this story and posting it; I received a summons in the mail to appear for jury duty]

28 comments:

History Doc said...

Fun times.

I was in one recently where the decision was whether or not to take kids away from a completely incompetent addict with a poor history with men.

And some of the jurors felt "sorry" for the mother. Luckily there were enough of us around to fix that.

DJan said...

You raise an interesting point when you ask how this ever came to a jury trial. It makes NO SENSE that this young man would be tried in this case. I don't live in Oregon but if I did, I would want to know this lawyer's name so I wouldn't ever end up with him.

Oh and BTW, good job there! Sorry for your loss but I'm glad you were there.

Rain said...

I had one this summer that sounds a lot the same for the situation but the jury was so much more reasonable and not prone to send someone to jail on a felony without being guilty without a reasonable doubt. Mine was also a case where the defendant was of a different class of people than the jury members but it worked that they looked past that and it only took us a few hours. Her attorney also had her hair styled (obviously) and had her dressed very differently than was probably the usual to help her case.

Part of the problem though is the way the law is set up and a jury doesn't get all the facts. I am glad you held out for not guilty as this sounds totally like an injustice would have happened otherwise. Hard to believe what some humans will do to others out of nastiness.

Robert the Skeptic said...

First off, thanks for being patient with my publishing the longer than usual post. I made it was as short as I could and still tell the story.

Doc Having worked in social services, I can assure you the State had done EVERYTHING possible for a termination trial to not happen. If it got that far, it likely needed to.

DJan Of course you never know if the DA is trying to get some bad guy jailed for any reason and can't make another case. Murderer and gangster Al Capon was convicted on tax evasion. It was the best the feds could do.

Rain The facts as presented can be confusing to a jury. But they are only allowed to decide based on what is presented. Now of course one can read between the lines. But it's so difficult for people to get past whether they like or not like a defendant and to make an independent judgment.

Rubye Jack said...

It's sad that the poor can't afford decent attorneys and end up going to prison while the rich get off. That's kind of beside the point here but something that always frustrates me about our system.

I'm just glad you were there to lend some direction to the process. People are funny arent' they?

Kay Dennison said...

Good job!!! Too bad I wasn't one of your jurors.

My sincere condolences to you and your family on your loss!!!

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rubye It makes me scared for all the other trials where one wonders how a determination of guilt or innocence was made. Frightening.

Kay That was a few years back. I just received another summons to be on a Jury, I am not looking forward to it.

Jono said...

The defense attorney must have been an idiot not to be able to get the point across. The only good time to do jury duty is when you are otherwise unemployed. Here it pays $15 a day!

Paul said...

I was on a jury once and the bailiff had to come into the jury room and separate two of the jurors. It seems that they were neighbors and couldn't stand each other !

billy pilgrim said...

i took a communication course that revolved around 12 angry men. over the course of 3 months we must have watched it 5 times and never tired of it.

as they say you only get one chance to make a first impression and it sounds like heavy blew it.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Jono I was not impressed with that defense attorney, I feel like I made his presentation to the jury FOR him.

Paul I could imagine that jurors getting testy with each other would not be all that uncommon. You get to pick your friends, but not your fellow jurors.

Billy I thought of that film on many occasions. Indeed, I am not sure why some defendants are so clueless about non-verbal communication? It seems so basic a concept to me!

Peter's Daughter said...

I was on a military court martial once in which a couple of the people were voting guilty on counts that weren't even presented during the case (i.e. for specific dates that neither side mentioned). After quizzing these individuals (one of whom was senior to me, but that didn't stop my interrogation), they finally admitted that the defendant must be guilty because no commander will allow a case to come to a court martial unless he/she has already researched the offense and is confident of a conviction. I was appalled. In their mind, juries were only there to vote "guilty" so sentencing could occur. Fortunately, the majority of us understood our responsibility, and we acquitted the defendant of those charges (but he was found guilty of many others, so the result was the same). It's incredible to me how judgmental people can be even when there is no evidence.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Pete's Daughter I have heard defense attorney's say similar things, that juries just assume that the person must be guilty or they would not be on trial. It would not surprise me the military Courts Martial would lean even more toward that line of thinking. Sometimes, though, juries occasionally step up and do the right thing.

adrielleroyale said...

Good for you for sticking to your guns! I watched something slightly similar (as far as a poor excuse for an appointed attorney goes) once and decided I would probably be better off defending myself rather than having some pro bono lawyer!

Nance said...

You've entirely convinced me that I don't want a jury trial, either. And that you are a master story teller. And that irony makes the world go 'round.

Anne said...

I was only once on a jury, in Atlanta, but the case was oddly similar to yours. A man with a load of melons in an old truck was driving from Florida to market and on the way picked up a hitch-hiker. The truck was showing signs of engine trouble and the hitch-hiker offered to take it to a mechanic he knew. The melons were unloaded, the hitch-hiker took the truck to an unlicensed mechanic and then vanished. The truck sat at the mechanic's lot for 6 months and was eventually reported stolen. The mechanic didn't know who the owner of the truck was and the truck owner didn't know who the mechanic was. The mechanic was charged with car theft. Apparently he admitted that he had driven it once during the months that it sat on his lot. The judge, who dozed through most of the testimony, was unable to charge the jury after the first day of trial, even though it was finished by 4:30, I think because he didn't have his teeth in. So we came back the next morning and arrived at a verdict of not guilty before they had time to bring us coffee.

I drew two conclusions from this: first, a lot of tax money was wasted bringing this case to trial, and second, sometimes a jury is more reliable than a judge.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Adrielle In some cases you may indeed be correct.

Nance I am flattered that you like my writing, I certainly don't clam to be a master story tell. But thank you.

Anne I guess it can be a crap shoot; ask for a judicial trial and your fate is in the hands of some dork judge. Still, I don't have a lot of confidence in juries. If anything I know people are often blind to their self-delusion. Bringing their mental baggage to a court environment is scary.

Wow, that was awkward said...

This was really interesting. I have moved so often without updating my address correctly (I'd just go to my old districts to vote) that I have somehow never been summoned for possible jury duty. I'd like to keep it that way.

Cognitive Dissenter said...

Very interesting, Robert. In my experience, I would rarely try a criminal case to the bench/judge. Judges are usually prosecutor-oriented. The odds of acquittal are much higher with a jury because the verdict has to be unanimous. One holdout means a hung jury. Lawyers who persuade their clients to waive their right to a jury trial are, generally speaking, incompetent and more interested in getting their retainer than ensuring their clients' right to a fair trial (again, there are rare situations when waiving the jury makes sense).

Another fact you might find interesting is (in my experience) during jury selection, prosecutors tend to favor the uneducated/easily manipulated/devoutly religious. In contrast, defense attorneys generally go for educated critical thinkers, people more likely to listen to and evaluate the evidence.

Your experience perfectly demonstrates why that is so. You epitomize what all jurors should be and our system would work better if it were so. As you observed, crochet woman was an idiot. And the other holdout had a personal bias against you that he lacked the intelligence to separate from his constitutional role.

Thanks for sharing your experience. Fascinating!

LadyCat said...

I'm glad you stuck to your beliefs and took charge of the situation. That isn't always easy to do. It sounds like it was a very difficult time in your life.
I was on a jury a few years ago and it was clear that the evidence was weak. But I was with a great group and they all agreed on the innocence of the person.
Overall, it was a positive experience.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Awkward They must like my work... I am on my third summons as of this week.

Dissenter This is important, thank you. I am definitely rethinking any leanings toward having a bench decision. The key it seems is having a good competent defense counsel, though. Someone who will sort thoughtfully through the jury selection.

LadyCat I came away with the feeling from my experience that people generally want to do the ethical thing. My fears is that they have thinking processes that may undermine rationality. But it's the best system we have.

Dawn @Lighten Up! said...

Ah yes. Beautiful people can never be wrong, can they? Gotta love that halo effect.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Dawn Sad, but very true.

Secret Agent Woman said...

First, I'm very sorry for your loss.

Secondly, in my experience, juries are idiots. Possibly the deciding factor was Heavy's appearance but that's an assumption. Maybe they were reacting to the idea of being taken advantage of or some other personal issue. Regardless, the court should do a better job of explaining to jurors their jobs.

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent Well the loss has been a few years now. But yes, I think generally juries are definitely a crap shoot at best.

Jerry said...

I would have hoped that the defendants attorney would have made this point obvious. Luckily you did it for him.

Like you, I don't understand how it even got to trial.

KleinsteMotte said...

Don't get why some get called for jury duty and some never. That you have been called yet again is interesting.
I don't get why such a silly disagreement can waste so much time and money in court.
Here it would never make it to a jury one.

Entre Nous said...

I love Jury Duty Stories! Unfortunately for the most part I was disqualified and nver even got asked. After retiring I received a summons, but the original I had to fill out and mail in asked "Have you EVER worked in Law Enforcement?" Do you have and relatives (living or dead) or close friends that have been in Law Enforcement?" ""Do you know or are you related to an attorney or any other officer of the court?"

Needless to say I have never heard from THE SYSTEM again. Now I ask you, IS that fair and balanced.... I may be batting a thousand on the questions but it does not mean I cannot be impartial!!!!