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.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.
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.
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"
"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]