Jury Life: The Trial

It has been a while since I wrote that title, and I’m wondering just what to say. There’s the small version: an insecure kid — both emotionally and economically insecure — crossed a line more than once, trying to keep his mildly awful suburban girlfriend close by so he could talk her out of dumping him.

We saw, at the start of the trial, during the testimony of the girlfriend’s dad, a video of the kid in front of the girlfriend’s house. He is obviously angry. At the end, he scoops up the family cat and walks away. I seriously questioned my ability to be objective after that.

Dad said the cat was gone for days, but finally came back. The first lie of the trial. Turns out The Kid and Max were besties, and Max is choosy about his pals. Dad also denied threatening to shoot The Kid.

Complicating things: Awful Girlfriend’s mother became a lifeline for the kid. He was unwelcome in his own home, but she had his back. Even after everything, she tutored him up to get his GED. Her husband is not aware of this. But from her delivery of testimony it’s easy to see where Awful Girlfriend learned her ways.

Reflecting on all the questions about abuse during voir dire, it turns out the girlfriend was not above pummeling her physically-smaller beau. At least, according to her mother.

If you haven’t guessed already, I was (still am) sympathetic to the defendant. But there was simply no getting around the fact he did two of the three things he was accused of. The third just smelled like the DA going for broke, and was just silly.

Apparently we’re on the fast version of this story, so I’ll just say I was elected jury foreman because I’d been on a jury before, Juror 4 did a great job challenging everything, and I wish I’d challenged Juror 10’s desire to get the fuck out of there to make sure he was actually voting his conscious.

Guilty on two out of three.

If I were the judge, I would put this smart, emotional kid into community service, caring for people. I can see him in a nursing home, doting over the residents. I think The Kid could shine in a role where caring too much is a good thing. Losing a friend will be brutal for him, but this is what he was built to do.

There’s a lot more I can say; observations during the trial, the fidgety and annoying habits of Juror 2 (had I written this three weeks ago, that would have been its own episode), the friendly bailiff — but ultimately we did our job. I’m disappointed that we were asked to do our job in this case; this seems like something that didn’t really need to go to trial. Perhaps Miss Li, the defense attorney, felt that the witness testimony would affect sentencing. She might be right. It’s not her fault jury trials are really fucking expensive, and she is obligated to do what is best for her client.

Justice is a slippery thing, my friends, and the law is not always about right and wrong. But this time the law was clear and I have to trust the judge to do the right thing.

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Jury Life: Voir Dire Day 2 — I am Given a Voice

This is the overdue installment about my experience as a Juror. In particular, you might want to read Voir Dire Day 1.

Overnight I stewed on the things potential jurors had said on the first day. I found myself hoping my name would be called just so I could say my piece about the things people had said. Domestic abuse is a mess.

After another round of attrition my name was called, and I occupied seat 13. First alternate, if nothing changed. Logistically, the closest seat to the lawyers. I would be a juror, unless I said something to get me booted. As an honest and thoughtful human being, I knew I was a juror.

The attorneys found me well-defined enough that I had to volunteer to bless the assemblage with my thoughts. They would interrogate the others, then ask, does anyone else want to comment on that? I always had something to say, and I occasionally raised my hand. I tried to choose my spots.

There was the guy now in seat sixteen, and man, that dude was a domestic violence magnet. Two cases going on right now. Back in the day he spent a fortune to bring in experts to bust his sister, who was making false domestic violence charges and almost got a guy sent to jail for a long time. Sixteen used to live next to a shelter, and they would ask him to come over and convince angry men to walk away. I’m not sure I’ll have space in the Muddleverse to tell his story well, but damg, that cat has a story.

Sixteen disqualified himself when he mentioned that he had discussed abuse with his wife last night. “I kept it abstract!” he insisted, but his wife (who, I learned in conversation during a break, once played basketball at Stanford) surely could put two and two together, and even if she didn’t, things she said were sure to influence him. But Sixteen was the first to use the word “bully”.

The defense lawyer was working hard on the theme that women commit domestic abuse, and there was a growing consensus that women abuse men as often as men abuse women in this country, but in different ways.

I don’t think that’s true, and I volunteered to say so. I believe we strive to be a nation where abuse is 50-50, but we are not there yet. The word I used that day was “leverage”. Leverage can come from many sources, but without leverage there is no serial abuse. For men, leverage is often physical strength or money, for women the leverage is (in my uneducated world) more often emotional. But nothing stops a man from using emotional leverage, too.

These days, men still have more leverage. Maybe things are evening out, but that’s how it is right now.

Later I pointed out that all the data any of the jury had to work with came from the media, and so we only hear about the most interesting (salacious) stories. “So you are saying you are willing to overlook the biased information you have received and judge this case impartially?” I was asked.

My response was not nearly as pithy as “If you want to distill my observation on social injustice down to a salient fact relevant to jury selection, then yes.” My actual response was only the last word of that.

But my big speech came after at-that-time Juror 12 was interviewed. I might have mentioned him before. His father physically abused his mother and him. They didn’t call the police, instead they “handled it in the family.” They handled it by getting rid of the bum. All’s well that end’s well, right?

“How would you feel if your mother started dating him again?” one of the lawyers asked. But that was not the big question.

When I had my chance, I asked, rhetorically, “How would Twelve feel if his dad started dating a complete stranger? Does he have a responsibility, having not reported his father’s behavior, if someone else gets hurt or killed?”

“What do you mean?” Miss Hawkins, assistant district attorney, asked.

“I keep hearing these people say they handled the situation, but what the really did was pass the problem on to some new unsuspecting victim.” I was getting a little riled up. “If you don’t bring in outsiders, then you are complicit in his next violence.” I wondered how people would react to my accusation of Twelve being guilty of assault. If anyone took my statements that far, they didn’t respond.

Another question to a different juror, got my volunteer spirit on high alert again. “Did you call the police?” The lawyer asked a witness to abuse. “No,” was the answer, as it ALWAYS IS.

I’m getting riled up again, just thinking about it.

Here’s the thing about involving the authorities in cases of domestic abuse: there is no positive outcome. Remember leverage? When the authorities come in, that power is realized. Loss of income, loss of home, loss of access to children. Sure if the system works right some of that can be restored, eventually. But eventually is not a choice for a lot of abuse victims.

This is why abused families don’t call the cops until it’s life and death. No good outcome. You just survive and maybe hope to push the monster onto a new victim.

There was another culling and suddenly I was Juror Three, the position I would hold for the trial.

Sixteen was gone, of course, but Twelve sat tight.

For the next and final batch of potential jurors the defense lawyer Miss Li proposed a hypothetical, seemingly to test us against sexism but actually, I suspect, to introduce bias into those selected. “If you saw a man head-slap a woman, would you call the police?” And to follow, “What if the woman head-slapped the man?”

Her goal at this stage of the voir dire was not to learn about the jurors as much as to remind those already comfortably seated that abuse goes both ways. But interviewee after interviewee answered that they would call the police no matter the gender. The jurors answered with what they now knew they should do, rather than what they would actually do.

I was no longer being interviewed, but I wanted to raise my hand, and maybe I should have.

Here’s the thing: None of the people in that room, judge included, would have called the police if any human had head-slapped any other human, unless the slapped was an infant or (maybe) if the slapped was knocked down. Yet juror after juror said they would call the cops. Bullshit. Our society has a built-in tolerance for some kinds of violence. And head-slaps are often affectionate.

There was a time, a long time ago, when I was at the beach with my friends. Maybe Cardiff, back when it had sand. A party just down the beach turned ugly, shouting and whatnot, and eventually a buff kid was sitting on top of a girl, fist drawn back, ready to do harm. I started walking that way, covering the space between our parties, hoping to be seen. I am not an imposing physical specimen, but in cases like this that’s not important.

He rose off her, and things calmed. I returned to our party, and no police were involved. If he hurt someone later, am I complicit? My choice was to intervene personally, in that moment. Granted, when that happened we did not have phones you could carry around, but even if we had phones I’m pretty sure we would not have dialed 911. We would have done exactly what we did that night: Present a witness and breathe a sigh of relief when violence didn’t happen. And enjoy the beach.

So now, as the actual trial is about to begin, I’m fizzing with an urge to call out many of my fellow jurors as liars, if well-intentioned. I did not. The fate of a kid was at stake.

Jury Life pt. 1: The Gathering of 45A

Monday morning two weeks ago, I, along with about fifty other shuffling citizens in group 45A, made the bleary trek to report to the Hall of Justice at the ungodly hour of 9 am. I chose to take the bus to town, as the Web site implied that parking was a hassle.

I tromped down to the bus stop in a light rain (the weather lingered an ENTIRE HOUR longer than my phone said it would), loaded up the transit app that gives real-time bus updates, loaded the other app to purchase my bus tickets, and then stood in the rain wearing a sweater and cargo shorts.

While I waited two men all bundled up in brightly-colored foul-weather gear, hoods pulled up over their heads, walked by. They both smiled at me, and when I smiled back one gestured at the clouds overhead and said, “Something something Amigo! Something something something!” and laughed.

I laughed also, shook my head sadly and said, “Yeah…” Even though I understood only one word he spoke, I knew exactly what he was saying. We parted friends. Or at least, amigos.

But honestly, unless hypothermia is an issue, getting wet doesn’t bother me that much. It’s an attitude I consciously adopted from a good friend of mine who went to college in Washington and didn’t carry an umbrella during gentle rains, to the bemusement of his peers. That attitude was reinforced when I started biking to work, and I realized that rain was not a big deal except for the mess — and that’s what fenders are for.

But I digress. The bus ride was uneventful. After I had I reached the Hall of Justice, set off the metal detector with my belt buckle, nearly mooned the people in line behind me when I took my belt off, and finally got through and regathered, I went up to the second floor to discover a long line of new jurors.

The line moved quickly; when I reached the front the barcode on my jury-summons postcard was scanned and I was handed a piece of paper and instructed where to go to do my next bit of waiting. I was not asked for any sort of identification. I guess Jury Imposters are not a prevalent problem. Or are they? How would we know? Is someone out there searching mailboxes for jury summons so that they can go and decide the fates of strangers? Or perhaps there’s an underground industry of Jury-Substitutes that people hire so they don’t have to report themselves.

I found my way to the Jury waiting room, which was already overfilled and people were still coming in. Department 45 was not the only courtroom seating a new jury that day, it appeared. It was warm in that room, and there weren’t enough seats, but I am still healthy enough to stand for a little while at least. But you know what happens when you pack a bunch of people from different communities into a room like that? I’ll tell you in a future episode. (Hint: that episode may or may not be called “Jury Plague”.)

After a while the announcement came for group 45A to proceed from the waiting room, down the stairs, across a walkway to the brown elevators, and back up to the second floor in the other wing to Department 45.

Yeah, the courtrooms are called “departments” at the Hall of Justice. I think that’s odd, too.

So all the people in group 45A stood and filed from the waiting room. I just went with the flow, and when the flow bypassed the brown elevators to find the stairs, I was good with that. It would have taken half the morning to get us all up in the elevator — one of the two brown elevators was in use to move prisoners.

When I say “all the people in Group 45”, I actually mean “all but one.” As we filed into Department 45 we checked in and then the bailiff had us fill the seats in the gallery in an orderly fashion. When that exercise was over, there was an empty seat. One potential juror was missing. So we waited. And waited.

After a couple of phone calls it was established that our erstwhile peer had got lost on the way from the waiting room to the courtroom, and had gone back to the waiting room without telling anyone about it. He was given new instructions and sent on his way once more. “He’ll be right here,” the bailiff said. The bailiff was a nice guy, but this time he was wrong.

Meanwhile, I’m sitting in a seat that was low to start with, and had a squishy seat. Next to me is a woman (who would become Juror #1) who was almost a foot taller than I was when we were standing up, and now the top of my head didn’t even reach her shoulder. I am not a tall man, but I don’t need to be reminded of that quite so forcefully.

Another call. More paging. Once more the stray juror was tracked down. The jury-handlers, already struggling with the surge of new jurors that day, found someone to walk 45A’s last member right to the door of Department 45.

Finally we were all assembled, and we were ready to begin. What followed was a discussion that was as disturbing as it was interesting.

Tune in next time for Jury Life Pt. 2: Voir dire!

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