11 December 2012


by Andy Weddington
Tuesday, 11 December 2012

"A jury is a group of twelve people of average ignorance." Herbert Spencer

For today, civics.

The court reporter started keying as the judge welcomed all to the courtroom, covered a few admin matters and what to expect procedurally, and explained the case was a serious criminal trial.

And then the judge said,

"Please tell us a little about yourself. Tell us your name; where you live; what you do; if married, for how long and what your spouse does; if you have children, how many and ages; if you have sat on a jury before and if so, what type, when, and was a decision reached; if you or anyone in your family has been the victim of a crime, when and where and resolution; if you recognize or know anyone in the courtroom and how that is; and if there is anything else relevant to these proceedings you believe worthy of mention."

So were the judge's words to the first 14 potential jurors - 12 and 2 alternates - seated for screening. That is, the first 14 randomly selected by the clerk out of a pool of 75 or 80 citizens seated in the courtroom gallery.

After each of the 14 spoke, the judge asked clarifying questions. And then questioning was turned over to the lawyers - the District Attorney (DA) and two defense attorneys (each representing a client facing the same charge - a serious first degree offense, though being tried separately).

Of course, opposing lawyers had different criteria for seating the most favorable jury.

Questions ranged from the specific, addressing something said during introductions, to all being asked a couple of basic questions: 1) Can you be fair if the defendants do not testify?; and 2) What's worse, to find an innocent person guilty or to find a guilty person not guilty? 

And the lawyers, after shaping scenarios, asked probing questions about the meaning of 'beyond a reasonable doubt' and the understanding of and ability to draw logical inferences.

After questioning, the judge and lawyers and court reporter and clerk retired to chambers. Fifteen to 25 minutes later they returned. First, the judge thanked and excused by juror number, and then turned to the lawyers. The DA, "We'd like to thank and excuse juror 4." Then the defense as a team, "We'd like to thank and excuse juror 11." Then the DA, "We'd like to thank and excuse juror 6." Then the defense attorneys separately - thanking and excusing a juror or approving.

Potential jurors who said they could not be fair without hearing the defendant's side or answered the innocent/guilty person question with hesitancy were politely thanked and dismissed. As were those who had personal life conflicts the judge deemed worthy of excuse.

Then the clerk called more names, randomly, to fill the vacant seats. And the newly seated introduced themselves and so went the screening process - questioning by the judge and lawyers; retire to chambers; return to the courtroom; thank and dismiss jurors; and the clerk randomly calling names to fill the vacant seats.

So went jury selection, iteration after iteration, for a day and a half.

Finally, a jury; 12 - a random not-so-dirty dozen and 2 alternates, so approved by counsel and the judge. One person was left in the gallery who'd not been called for introduction and questioning - the judge thanked for patience and dismissed.

The jury was asked to stand, raise right hands, and then sworn by the clerk (Though, germane and especially last four words, why not just recite the Pledge of Allegiance?).

The judge gave jury instructions, 

"Please put on your juror badge and wear, visibly, at all times when in and around the courthouse. Do not talk about the case to anyone, by any means, for any reason. Do not do any research in papers, on the Internet, etc. Do not talk amongst yourselves. Do not talk to the lawyers. You may take notes but your notes must remain in the courtroom when court is not in session. After you have heard the evidence, you will be given the relevant law before jury deliberations. All deliberations must include all jurors. For example, if a juror is absent for a restroom break etc., then all discussion about the case must stop. If any questions, whatsoever, work through the bailiff." 

And there were other cautionary and advisory tidbits.  

The judge reminded the jury that opening and closing statements by the attorneys was not testimony, and that the jury was to only consider sworn testimony for reaching decision(s).

Innocent until proved guilty. The case began.

From the start, it was complicated by a key witness for the  prosecution who did not speak English - a translator joined in the witness stand. And the witness was anxious, timid, nervous.

Throughout testimony, defendants whispered with their attorneys. Attorneys occasionally approached to conference with the judge.

The DA was amicable but all business. One defense attorney - older, reserved, and to the point - he'd been in court a few times. The other defense attorney - younger, had trouble restraining a gregarious nature, liked to talk, to hypothesize. The attorneys danced - a three-step vice two-step. The judge the caller though squares not in the programmed repertoire. But order was.  

For nearly two days, the jury - male, female, white, black, early 20s to early 70s, and from all walks of life - listened, attentively, to prosecution and defense witnesses.

Unlike the TV crime-fighting world, there was no DNA nor forensic expert testimony. Ordinary citizens who knew something and wanted to do what was right took the stand. And so did police officers - doing their best with the tools at their disposal. In theory, no one's testimony to be considered more credible than any other's.

There were no theatrics, from anyone.   

The defendants did not testify.

And then the prosecution and defense offered closing statements - their spin on the facts. How strange non-evidence, storytelling, the last words the jury would hear. So goes due process.   

The case - interesting and serious. There was humor, too. The scripted proceedings - an unpredictable chain of human emotions yet the judge cleverly orchestrated for levity, decorum, compliance with personal quirks, law, and due process.

All, less the human dynamics, being logged by the busy hands of the court reporter. But note the transcript void human interaction - or as the General Semanticist would say, "The transcript is not the courtroom."

Then the jury adjourned. First order of business - select a foreman. And then for the rest of the day and next full day the jury deliberated over - physical evidence, photographs, testimony, and opinions.  

A unanimous decision against one defendant reached rather quickly - not hastily - for the evidence to support guilt was compelling. The 'beyond a reasonable doubt' standard met. 

As to the other defendant, deliberations long and contentious and sometimes heated. The physical evidence, photographs, and testimony led jurors to make different inferences and conclusions - logic depended upon perspective. One defense attorney's lengthy closing statement (an explanation of innocence, of course) proved to be more effective than warranted. Guess which attorney.

After a half dozen votes, throughout the day, the jury was split - same folks each vote 6 / 6. With pretty colors, charting scenarios on a whiteboard with fact and inferences and discussion did not change minds. Judge guidance, and law, was if doubt as to any element of law then obligated, required, to find not guilty. And so it was. And so it was when lesser included offenses considered. Was an innocent person found not guilty or a guilty person found not guilty? Neither.

Paperwork complete, the bailiff was informed the jury had reached decisions. The judge was notified. The lawyers were rounded up. And the jury then escorted by the bailiff to the courtroom. The practically empty gallery during the trial now seated a dozen or so police officers. For security or personal interest? Most likely, both. The bailiff handed the jury's decision sheets to the judge.

Before announcing the jury's decisions, the judge asked the foreman if the split was hopeless - that is, after repeated votes and if the same jurors were standing fast and whether further deliberation would matter? The answers - yes, hopeless, and no point for further discussion. The judge then polled the same of each juror. Each concurred with the foreman.

The accused and attorneys stood.

The judge read the decisions. First, the guilty verdict. And then a hung jury and mistrial declared against the other defendant.

There was order in the courtroom. Next to no reaction from anyone - defendants, lawyers, family of accused. It was if the outcome exactly as expected. It was logical.

The judge polled the jury - one by one and one through twelve as to the results their decisions. Yes by all.

Moments later the judge turned attention to the jury - thanking the jury for their service and emphasizing that even with a hung jury the jury had done its job - justice was served. The jury was declared free to discuss the trial and dismissed.

The court reporter's hands went still.

In closing...  

Duty began with a summons in the mail about 30 days before court date. A telephone call the night before confirmed appearance. Among the last two or three jurors seated I, Juror 8, was surprised, considering military background, to have not been thanked and excused. 

Free to speak with attorneys, defendants, jurors and anyone, afterwards, I opted out and left the courthouse directly. Testament to duty and doing what was right, sleep was easy that evening. And I have only broadly spoke of the experience a couple of times.

Every citizen should be so fortunate to serve at least once - an enlightening and humbling civic duty. From chaos emerges order and, whether happy or not, justice.

Though not without flaw, as all things human are, faith in our judicial system affirmed. It was fair - though surely some, on both sides and amongst the jury, were disappointed.

Oh, the random not-so-dirty dozen elected their foreman - Juror 8.

Post Script

From the juror experience and the recent murder of my wife's stepmother, in her home, reminders that bad and awful things happen to good, law-abiding citizens. If not already, learn to safely and confidently handle a firearm (handgun), and own one. A firearm is an insurance policy, granted by the Constitution, that just might save your life, or the lives of loved ones.

To have a firearm close at hand and never have call to use it is responsible, it is wise. To need a firearm, when no other weapon will do, and not have one close at hand is unnecessary risk.  


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