We, the jury

12_angry_men_jury_table

I just got back from jury duty, and boy, are my arms tired.

It was my first jury duty summons since moving to North Carolina; it’s taken them four years to track me down. I must be a favorite of the legal system, because I’ve been on half a dozen juries in my life. Others in my recent panel said they have been on one or two, or none, over the course of their lives. But I am old and I’ve seen a lot.

Each time I serve, I get a lump in my throat because I see from the inside how seriously each of my fellow jurists takes the job. Only once in all those juries was there the stereotypical white businessman on a cellphone barely able to spare a moment to consider the case. He was roundly drummed by the rest of the members and eventually forced to put down the phone.

This case was both simple and dull. A man was charged with drunk driving. He was videotaped during the initial traffic stop and after the arrest, tested via the breathalyzer and shown to have double the legal limit of hooch in his veins. We were all charged by the judge in the case to maintain our presumption of innocence. The defendant sat quietly next to his lawyer and until we heard any evidence, I certainly had no trouble assuming he might be innocent.

If you have never had the pleasure of sitting in a jury box, you might not understand how slow and methodical a trial must be. You can’t ask a witness what someone’s blood alcohol might have been; first you must establish that the witness is qualified to testify and that the equipment used had been recently maintained and whether it was a test accepted by the state of residence and other states in the union. Then the district attorney will take us through the process of administering the test, step by slow, slow step. This simple process of asking the police officer in the witness box whether the defendant had a blood alcohol level above the prescribed point-zero-eight percent can easily fill up an hour, during which time we learn how long the officer has been with the force, what his previous jobs were, where he lives, whether he is married. They nearly asked him to empty his pockets to see what he carries.

During the entire trial, the defendant said nothing, either to the court or to his lawyer, sitting next to him at the table. He might as well have been a stuffed teddy bear. Meanwhile the two D.A.s spread out all the evidence, had us watch the dashboard camera videotape of the traffic stop — most of which was taken up by the man standing behind his car waiting for the police officer who was off-camera in the car filling out paper work.

There were frequent interruptions while the jury marched out of the courtroom into the holding cell while the lawyers conferred with the judge on some legal matter, after which we were marched back in to resume the glacial accumulation of damning evidence. We also learned the marital status of two more police officers. The first witness was the officer who pulled the defendant over at 2 p.m. on a Sunday morning after noticing that he was weaving back and forth in his car. But because that officer hadn’t yet earned the proper certification, he called in backup — an officer cleared to administer the field sobriety tests necessary to determine if an arrest was warranted. The second officer — married, by the way — then gave our borrachista three standard tests, whose scientific pedigrees were painfully explained in trial testimony. We saw on the video that the defendant had trouble with all of the tests — walking heel to toe down a straight line and stumbling on the way; following a pen the officer moved back and forth in front of the defendant’s eyes; and standing on one foot for a prescribed period of time while answering questions.

After a lunch break of an hour and a half — during which time, we are assured, the judge and lawyers were not just imbibing three martinis, but were continuing to conference and work while grabbing a quick bite of sandwich their wives must have packed them in the morning — we resumed. It was time for the defense. The defendant’s attorney stood up professorially and said with due gravity, “No witnesses, your honor.”

The judge turned to us and explained that we were now to hear the summations, which we were not to take as evidence, but purely as spin — although he did not use that precise characterization. The prosecuting attorney just rehearsed the evidence they had previously presented — the failed sobriety tests and the breathalyzer test showing a point-one-five.

He sat down.

The defense attorney got up, walked to the jury and reminded us that the machine that tests a driver’s breath for alcohol was a large, opaque box and we could not see into it, and so, could we really trust the numbers it spit out on a ribbon of paper? Clearly he was grasping at straws.

The judge then explained the law we were to apply and the questions we were to answer and the bailiff marched us back out into the jury room, where on a fast show of hands, we convicted the poor fellow. We were also supposed to decide on two aggravating conditions. The remaining time in the deliberations were spent on deciding if we thought the defendant had been “grossly impaired” while driving, and whether he had reached the aggravating limit of a point-one-five alcohol level. The machine answered the second charge, but we seriously considered the question of what was meant by “grossly.” We sent a note to the judge asking for guidance, and he sent back a not saying “It’s up to you.” We argued back and forth for maybe 10 minutes before we all agreed that we might be able to give him the benefit of a “reasonable doubt” about the word “grossly,” and let him off the hook on that one.

We marched back into the courtroom, went through the prescribed ritual of a jury poll and delivered the verdict and were released by the judge. Everyone else went home. I went back to the courtroom to hear the sentence. Our man was given 180 days in county jail, suspended; a year’s probation; a mandatory alcohol rehabilitation term; loss of driver’s license for two years and a $200 fine. No change of expression on his face.

As they were leaving the courtroom, I asked the prosecuting attorneys if it were not odd that a case with essentially no defense at all should make its way to a jury trial. It would have seemed to the defendant’s advantage to take a plea deal. Why did he insist on going the full monte? “From what I heard,” said the D.A., “pure spite.” He cost the county two days of court time (I haven’t mentioned the first day, which was spent entirely on jury selection. Most of those selected were eventually dismissed. After the panel was finalized with 12 men and women and my name had not been called, I felt something of a relief, until the judge announced, “Now we have choose an alternate.” Bingo. My name. In further news, the next morning when I arrived to be the alternate, one of the jury’s elect had been hospitalized overnight, and so I became Juror No. 6.)

I now am free from jury duty for the next two years, and pocketed a quick $24 for my service. But I have to say, I have never looked upon serving as something to be shunned. Not only is it a civic obligation, it is genuinely interesting. Especially now that I am retired, it provides a welcome break in routine, but even when I was working, it was something I felt was a meaningful look at a part of my humanity that I otherwise would not know, at least no more than what I had gleaned from watching old Perry Mason episodes.

The episode caused me to remember my previous trials, beginning with the first in the mid-1970s. It was for a man named “Babe” who had shot up a pizza parlor in Greensboro, N.C. Babe had come that night with his teenage daughter, who, we learned, was a regular, where she would leave each night with a different man. On the night in question, the comely daughter was approached by a potential suitor (if that is what we might call him) and the father took offense, especially over the haggling of a price for the evening. Apparently Babe didn’t know what line of business his daughter had adopted. Anyway, a fight broke out, beer pitchers were smashed and shards of glass proffered as weapons; Babe then took out his Second-Amendment argument and proceeded to use it to punctuate the ceiling of the establishment. Needless to say, the joint emptied out rapidly and eventually the police came and arrested Babe.

At the trial, Babe, a graduate of no known law school, decided he should be his own defense attorney. The judge asked him if he had ever been arrested before. Babe said yes. The judge asked, “What for?” And Babe said, “You name it.” Let’s just say the defense went downhill from there. Babe’s primary witness was a friend who had run from the pizza parlor the moment the fracas commenced, so he didn’t see anything, but offered himself as a character witness. The judge asked him “Have you ever been arrested?” “Yessir.” “What for?” “Assault on a woman.”

The next trial I was called for was in Arizona and left me with a bad taste in my mouth for civil trials. It was a case where one party claimed the other party had failed in its obligation to a contract. Let me say right now, that if you ever find yourself summoned to a jury, pray you get a criminal case and not a civil one. We in the jury sat through a week of financial statements, ledger books, fine print, receipts and transcribed telephone conversations. Day after day, the slow build up of numbers piled on top of numbers, witnesses claiming this fiduciary that and that binding word this. At the end of the week, we were called back from the jury room and told we were dismissed, as the parties had settled out of court. That is a week of stultifying boredom I will never have restored to my brief span on this earth.

On the other hand, a criminal trial can be unimaginably depressing. The next trial was one of domestic violence, and both the perpetrator and victim were such wretched specimens of my species that it was all I could do not to weep inconsolably at the sight of them both. Poor, unschooled, barely able to cover their hides with decent clothing, we first tore our hearts for the wife — barely skin and bones — who had been whipped by her man and left bruised and battered. We were ready to draw and quarter the villain. But then, he was himself so wretched, had been battered as a child by his father and was so inarticulate that we knew the only communication he knew was by knuckle and beltbuckle. He was guilty as hell, and we knew we had to convict him, but we also hoped that the judge would recognize the misery in front of him on both counts. Please, I thought, feed them a decent meal, send him to jail, and find someone to look after the battered waif.

On television, criminals all seem to be supervillains, drug lords or serial killers so clever they leave tantalizing clues written in ancient Greek scrawled on the bathroom mirror. But my experience with the court system tells me that the bulk of those hauled in to trial are no geniuses, but sorry specimens, usually poor and uneducated with few good options in the furtherance of their lives. They do stupid things and are caught because they are notably not clever. My heart goes out to them, while not excusing any crime they might have committed.

The final case I sat through in Arizona was a double homicide, in which some gang-members with a beef with some guy, blocked his car in a parking lot and went up to the side window and shot both driver and passenger. They didn’t seem to notice that there was a teenage boy in the back seat. During the trial, the boy was the chief eye-witness. The defense attorney attacked him mercilessly on the stand, but the kid was so honest and innocent, he didn’t notice he was being badgered, and just quietly answered each question with open-faced sincerity. If the kid had once weaseled or hesitated, the attorney would have pounced, but the kid was imperturbable. He simply sank any potential defense.

The district attorney laid out the details and evidence with such simple efficiency, one after another like pops from a machine gun, never for a moment making a simple rhetorical flourish or cheap aside. Just an accumulated pile of fact burying the defendant. The poor defense attorney had little choice but to pile the theatricality thick. Red herring was his primary weapon. Did the witness say it was a revolver or a semi-automatic pistol? Did he not contradict himself? The lawyer jumped and pounced and began to sound rather like Foghorn Leghorn. He had no real evidence to present, so all he could do was pretend the prosecution evidence was somehow a pile of beans. Several times he tried to make a point that depended solely on a bad translation from Spanish to English. There was no ambiguity in the Spanish. Living in Arizona, we, the jury, had no problem understanding the Spanish in question, so it only made the defense attorney look more desperate and hopeless. My heart goes out to any poor defense attorney with no legs to stand on. It’s a thankless job.

In several of the cases I observed, there was a highly educated lawyer in a good suit seated next to someone who could barely write his name, wearing a rumpled Goodwill suit and tie, probably bought for them just for the trial date, looking like a deer caught in a headlamp, never fully comprehending what was happening around him, and probably headed for his second or third stretch at the county jail. At the other table was the prosecuting attorney, in another good suit, with piles of condemnatory notes in front of her and both tables facing a superior court judge, also with a fancy law degree, a good house in a gated community, a second or third wife, and a BMW waiting in a parking spot with his name on it. Behind them, in the grandstands, sit those witnesses waiting to be called: prosecution witnesses often in police uniforms, or doctors called as expert witnesses; defense witnesses in Goodwill suits that don’t quite fit and sporting mullets and professional-wrestling mustaches, and maybe a tattoo or three.

Somehow, it hardly seems like a fair fight. The indictment says it all: “The State vs. so-and-so.” One cannot help but think of Franz Kafka. Perhaps that is why I feel so proud of the jury, which is made up of — in this most recent case — farmers, teachers, car mechanics, students, grocery-store clerks, and at least one retired art critic. The jury is notably more representative of the society we live in than the lawyers who run things. I hope it all serves to even the odds.

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