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.


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.

I am a Juror

I have been asked by my community to sit in judgement of a neighbor. Neighbor in this usage is a broad term; the plaintiff is accused of crimes that happened in Santa Clara County, and that is where I live. But Neighbor here is not geographical. Neighbor in this case means someone who shares values similar to mine. If the dude down the street sacrifices virgins to the Great Lord of Darkness, he is not my neighbor, proximity notwithstanding.

When I sent notice to the folks who work around me that I would be out of circulation for a while, one response I got was “High five for doing your civic duty.”

I wrote back, “I actually feel strongly about that; juries are in fact a bulwark against tyranny.”

And I believe that. I believe that jury duty is a sacred trust, a bond between citizens, the last line of the law in a society governed by law. I am proud to be selected as a juror, vetted by both the people and the defense, and each has entrusted me with keeping an open mind.

Maybe this case is not one that defines our democracy. But maybe every decision by every jury does define who we are. I want to explore this more, but out of respect for the process, I’ll shut up now.


An Engineer’s Approach to Tax Reform

A few years ago Malcom Forbes (I think it was) proposed a 17% flat tax – the same rate for everyone, no loopholes. That proposal would actually have increased revenue. How is that possible? Lower rates for everyone, but higher revenue? Crazy! But true. The increase in revenue comes from what Forbes (I think) called “loopholes”.

“Loophole”, when applied to the tax code, is a conservative code word that the liberals have not deciphered. Because really, no one wants loopholes in the tax code. Loopholes allow the rich to get richer, at the expense of the little guy. Of course liberals hate loopholes.

But in this case, “loophole” actually means “policy”. There are essentially two ways for our government to fund a goal: collect money and then distribute it where needed, or not collect money from where it’s needed in the first place.

Ideally, the tax code would be about exactly one thing: collecting revenue. But it is MASSIVELY more efficient, especially with our terribly inefficient government, to not collect money than it is to collect it, filter it through the bureaucracy, and return a fraction of the amount to the point of need.

Our current tax code is a relatively simple set of rules for collecting revenue, and a gargantuan codex of exceptions. Many, perhaps even most, of those exceptions are defensible for the good they do. Food for hungry children. Incentives for businesses to reinvest in themselves. It’s all over the map.

There are also purely evil clauses in the tax code, carefully designed to benefit specific campaign donors. Actually, there’s quite a lot of those. Actual loopholes.

So: we can’t just wave our hand and sweep tax law clean of all “loopholes”. A lot of people would suffer, and finally we’d pass a bunch of other laws to fund those goals in a less-efficient manner. But somehow we have to weed out all that evil.

From an engineering standpoint, it’s simple. Break the one huge, incomprehensible law into maybe five hundred smaller laws.

First you have the tax revenue collection law. It’s a simple baseline describing brackets or whatever. How we bring the money IN.

Second you have a framework that allows separate laws for single, specific exceptions to that rule. Single. Specific. Each voted on by congress separately.

“Madness!” you cry. “My legislator could never understand 500 separate bills well enough to vote responsibly.” You’re probably right, but your legislator already cannot understand the 500 exceptions in the one tax bill she votes on now. At least she could abstain on policy decisions she couldn’t get to.

So much debating, so much deal-making… so much more work for our legislators. THAT’S THEIR JOB! And when the chips fall, we will have a list of who voted for each provision independently. We would have an exact list of the people who supported “cash for bankers” and who supported “breakfast for children”. There would still be deals, but the deals would be a lot more transparent. And I think that’s a good thing. Each provision of the code would have to stand on its own merits. It is exactly what our legislators DON’T want. It’s a lot harder to hide the fact that you’re in the pocket of a special interest when that vote sits out there on its own.

Implementing this plan would be bloody and painful. Cash cows would wither in the light of inspection (vampire cash cows?), political careers built on hiding shit in the tax code would end. On the downside, the turmoil would probably paralyze government for a year or two, and more than a few of the programs I deem worthy would not survive. People would suffer.

But honestly I think the pain would in the end be worth it. If every “loophole” were scrutinized separately, we could eliminate a lot of pork while making the government a much more efficient expression of the voice of the people.

The First and Last Mile, and Net Neutrality

The hardest part about installing public transportation in a city not built for it is the first and last mile. That’s the mile one has to go to reach the nearest stop, and the mile they have go on the other end to reach their destination. People just plain won’t walk a mile anymore. Older, denser cities don’t have this problem; there is a tram stop nearby no matter where you live.

If Net Neutrality is torpedoed, we will have a new last mile problem. At least in urban areas, near where you live is The Backbone — the actual internet, the information superhighway. Your ISP is an on-ramp, but they’re about to be given the right to control your access to the highway. If you live in a rural area, the last mile might be more than a mile but the concept is the same.

The ISPs are just an on-ramp, but because they control the last mile (they have wires connected to your house), they control your access. That’s why there are currently laws to prevent them from abusing that power. If net neutrality goes away, we’ll have a new first-mile problem. So much information, so close, but held hostage by the wire-owners. That first step.

Some will pay the ISP’s extortionate fees. Some will be cut off from one of the key assets that decides who gets ahead these days. The rich will get richer. To be more specific, the rich people who floated this whole idea will get richer, and they don’t give a crap about anyone else. It’s not that they want the poor to remain poor, that would be evil. They simply don’t care what happens to those people.

Already here in Silicon Valley there is a company promising to be a neutral ISP, no matter what the law says. They solve the last mile with a radio dish pointed at a tower (if I’m reading their propaganda correctly), but at the moment cost/performance is not close to the guys with wires connected to my house. Even so, if the guys with wires make the slightest move toward controlling my access, They should know now that I will not remain their customer for long.