Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Hatchet Jurist

"Well...that was unexpected!" One of my fellow jurors remarked as we filed into the jury deliberation room.

Unexpected? Perhaps. The same outcome I was certain we were heading towards since yesterday, though. Now that it's all over, I am free to regale you with tales of The Hatchet Jurist. This is going to be pretty long, since all of my lawyerly friends wanted complete details. Get something to drink and get comfortable!

I've been calling into the jury line every Friday this whole month. The other two weeks, they didn't want me. This week, when I was actually hoping to not be called, since Misty was getting sworn in on Monday afternoon was of course the day they finally wanted me. And since I was called, I answered the summons (with jail time if you ignore it) and went to do my civic duty. All of my lawyerly friends were jealous.

I felt almost certain that they wouldn't want me. Federal court, my husband is a lawyer, I'm possibly too educated and I support the 2nd amendment. Hmmm....well, let's see what my chances are!

The case was criminal, we were told. A known felon was indicted for being in possession of a weapon. The judge made it very clear that the indictment means nothing. That it was up to us to listen to the facts and rule accordingly. I sat in the back of the room as they called up the first 13 potential jurists and waited as they went through the jury selection process. I was tired from having stayed up too late with Eric and regretting it while trying to pay attention. The courtroom was huge and well appointed, also appeared to be very new. The Chief Justice Babcock was presiding. On the left was the defense: Mr. L. and his lawyer and on the right was the prosecution: The Government. The judge was very concerned with the welfare of the jurists. He thanked us all for coming. He made a few jokes here and there and told them that he knew they were nervous, but that everything would be just fine. Sitting in the back of the room, I was thinking, "What's he talking about? I'm not nervous!"

The jury selection process was run by the judge, once all 13 folks were sitting (there were about 30 of us in the jury pool in this room), he began questioning them. Tell us who you are, where you're from, what you and your spouse do, and what you do for fun. Those may seem like innocuous little questions, but the answers seemed to get a number of people discarded from the jury. Do you own any guns? What kinds? Do you have any friends or family in law enforcement? Do you believe that you can make a fair judgment on the defendant? Oh! And do you watch any of the CSI shows on television! The judge excused the first person himself after she admitted to a hatred of guns since her father committed suicide when she was young. Then, after listening to everyone respond to the questions, the bailiff brought sheets around to the prosecutors and then the defense to make their first cuts to the jury. She took the final list to the judge, who then thanked everyone for their time and then read off the names. The first 6 cuts were made. Then the bailiff chose another 6 names at random from the bunch of us sitting quietly in the back of the room, where we were all trying not to fall asleep.

I woke up pretty darned fast when the first name they called was mine!

I went to the first seat, but then had to turn back around and fill in to the right of the remaining juror in the front row. Yes, there I was, front and center in the jury box. I immediately began trembling. Absolutely shivering and I couldn't stop.

What the hell? It's not like I'm on trial here! I thought to myself frantically. But I couldn't stop shivering and I was torn between hoping they'd keep me (because I really really wanted to be on the jury) and wanting to escape. Curiosity won out in the end, I wanted to stay. The same questions were posed to us: tell us about yourselves, what's important to you, do you own guns, do you have family members that are part of law enforcement, do we watch the crime shows? I thought I was doomed as soon as I said Yes to guns and the next question was What kind of guns? Then I answered that and was greeted with Have you ever fired one? Again Yes and then the clincher: What makes you think you can judge this case fairly, since you are a gun owner. I can't remember exactly how it was worded, but it was clearly "Prove to me that you can be fair, even though you have experience with guns and a gun was involved in this case".

Mind you, several other folks had also admitted to gun ownership and several had been removed in the first cut for whatever reason. I was the first person he asked that question of specifically and I felt totally put on the spot. So I answered as truthfully as I could. I support the 2nd amendment: the right to bear arms. I told them about having my very own newly minted lawyer husband and best friend who was being sworn in that very day and that I have a friend that used to be a police officer in California. Once they determined that Eric was interested in IP and that I never talked to Ed about police work, they moved the focus of judicial questioning to the next person. I thought that was going to be the end of me, but the next round came and went, as did another 4 people and I was still seated.


A couple more iterations of question and response with the new folks, several more excused personally by the judge and then, at 11:20am we were done selecting. We remaining 13 were it!

I was kind of bummed when the guy sitting next to me was removed. He had the deepest voice I'd ever heard on a man that short, ever. It was a cool voice. Instead, he was excused for possibly being biased against the defense since he was involved in a counter suit involving a family member. Oh well!

We were then sworn in, seated and had the case explained to us after the remaining jury pool left the room.

Three shots were fired around 2am in February of last year. Police responded to the scene, only to see a car pulling out of the driveway and leave. The police pulled the car over, it stopped for only a moment and then peeled away. The police chased it for a few miles, sirens wailing, speeding excessively, blowing through stoplights, when it crashed into a cab that tried to pull over, flipped over and came to a halt. Both occupants of the vehicle were thrown clear, as well as the contents of the car. The cop in the lead car stopped, leapt from his car, cleared the defendant's car and saw the defendant, getting up and trying to run away. After securing Mr. L in handcuffs, the officer went to return to his police car when he noticed Mr. L's wife laying unconscious in the gutter, having sustained head injuries upon being ejected from the car. That's also when he saw the gun. The prosecutor's job was to prove to us that the gun belonged to Mr. L. The defense just needed to instill a sense of reasonable doubt in the jury. The jury's whole job was to listen intensely and determine if the prosecutors had done their job or if the defense had.

The lady next to me started looking more and more uncomfortable. She told me she really needed to use the restroom and what was the protocol for getting someone's attention? I really didn't know, but was certain it involved the bailiff, who's face was obscured by the enormous monitors in front of her. The lady next to me raised her hand and kept it raised for a very long time, looking more and more desperate as time went on and neither the judge nor the bailiff saw her. The judge was focused on the witness that was currently giving testimony. The bailiff was behind a computer screen. Things were looking bad for our desperate jurist when finally the defense took a moment to interrupt the prosecution's questioning of the witness and pointed out that the jury needed attention. The court was quickly put into recess and out she rushed. The rest of us followed at a slower pace, trying not to laugh.

Such a serious and quiet courtroom and in the middle of it, a woman desperate to service a very real human need. She felt terribly embarrassed, but we all felt for her. I checked in with the bailiff to find out what the standard protocol was supposed to be (raise your hand and she would take care of calling recess, or just stand up so the judge would see you) and then trotted off to the restroom myself, since I didn't know when we would next get to go. All rest breaks and lunch break decisions are up to the judge, so you never know when they will be. My advice to you, should you ever be called, is to take advantage of those breaks and DON'T drink any water in between. Better to be slightly dehydrated than to have to stop the entire court proceeding, I think. However, you all do what you need to do!

We filed back into court, our pads of paper clutched in our hands and finished with the first witness. We are allowed to take notes, but not to ask questions. I was glad of the note taking, it gives you something to do and a way to organize your thoughts. We were not allowed to discuss the case with our fellow jurists, yet and had to keep all thoughts to ourselves and stay completely away from the lawyers and family members of the accused. We then broke for lunch, returned refreshed and started up again.

The witnesses were all called up by the prosecution and questioned in a rapid fire stream of question and answer. The defense got to cross examine. Prosecution then had a chance to re-direct after the defense was done. Each side had their occasional Objection! Followed by the reason (generally Relevance!) and then either Sustained or Overruled, as the judge saw fit. All of those law and order type shows are a crock! Nothing so flashy actually happens in court, it would appear. If you object, you'd better have a reason why. When introducing evidence (almost all photos that were displayed to the jury on the screens (very high tech courtroom) set into the arm rests between every pair of chairs), the defense had the opportunity to object to evidence, but never did. He would bob halfway out of his chair and say No objection and then the evidence would be allowed and displayed to us.

I thought swearing in the witnesses was interesting. There was no statement of "...so help you God". Instead it was "...or suffer the pains and penalties of perjury". So much for that bit of TV fiction as well. At least, they don't do it that way here in CO.

I took copious notes. I didn't think I would, but I did. I made eye contact with witnesses, lawyers and defendant. I looked over the family members in the back of the room. I really wished someone had told all of his friends to dress like they were attending a funeral as well. They weren't dressed to elicit either our sympathy or our respect, and I didn't think that helped the defendant any. Something to keep in mind should you ever be in the hot seat. I couldn't tell you if I was taking more or less notes than anyone else, but I'll tell you this: I was very aware of what each side was doing. Where they were going with their lines of questioning. When they tried to get our sympathy by mentioning that the car had crashed near an elementary school (Objection! Relevance!) repeatedly. How the prosecution would spend time propping their witness up: look at how knowledgeable and respectable! and how the defense would reinforce that notion and then turn around and remind you that they are just human. And that they all seemed to forget to write up all of the details they were telling us now in their reports written a year ago! The prosecution had to deal with the mistakes of several different groups: Denver police, expert gun guy, expert DNA guy, crime scene investigator and federal investigator.

Here's something that was driving me crazy as the case went on: both sides repeatedly referred to Mr. L's ex-wife, laying there bleeding and unconscious with a head wound in the gutter as "The Female". I wanted to throttle them. She is an actual human being you dolts! They would occasionally refer to her as "The Woman" but should have called her Mrs. L or Mr. L's ex-wife or something more respectful than "The Female". You'd have thought the prosecution would have done so but it was not to be.

I made notes on the way they introduced someone as an expert and when they convinced me that an empty 9mm magazine was found on Mr. L. They convinced me that they knew which blood was his and that it was found on the magazine. They convinced me that it was possible that magazines leave a unique mark on the bullets placed into them and that the shell casings on the ground outside of the house (Remember? "Three shots fired"?) came from that magazine and that the live round found on the ground was also from that magazine. They couldn't make the connection that those rounds were fired from the 9mm Beretta 92FS that was found, empty, laying on the sidewalk near the elementary school, which had an unusual lanyard clip attached to the bottom of it, but no matching line attached to Mr. L. They couldn't find a single witness that had seen Mr. L with a gun before or during that night, nor anyone that saw him fire it, not even his wife. They had not tested him (either his hands or his clothes) for gun shot residue (GSR), defense claiming that it was very important evidence and prosecution claiming it was very delicate material (another TV line shot to hell). They couldn't lift any fingerprints from the gun - the expert witness said that in the thousands of times they had checked guns for fingerprints attested to the fact that they'd only gotten a usable set about 3 times. Yet another TV myth shot down. Neither side performed a DNA test on the gun itself. Realistically, since both Mr. and Mrs. L had been bleeding, it was quite possible that either or both of their blood may have been on it, so that also would not have shown possession, just as his bleeding all over the sidewalk didn't mean he was in possession of it. They convinced me that he drove the car, that he fled a traffic stop, that he crashed the car, that he got up and began moving, but not that he was fleeing the scene.

Was he drunk? Was he disoriented? It was a violent crash, certainly, but do you expect us to believe that he was in possession of wits enough to get up and try to run away? They never told us what his physical state actually was, that night. When his ex-wife testified, she told us that she was drunk and that she has no memory of the chase, the crash or the gun. She never saw it before and had no idea what a magazine was when presented with a picture of it. You can choose to believe her or not. Was she coerced? Did she suffer memory loss from the drunkenness or the traumatic head injury? Was she afraid of her ex? We won't ever know. We have to assume that she was telling the truth. Why did he run from the cops? Was he out after curfew? They mentioned that he had tried to get permission to stay out late for a party, but never mentioned whether he got permission or not. The cops chased the car, but didn't check what was happening inside the house.

When the second set of cops showed up to the house, a group of people that had been seen outside leapt into a car and fled. The second set of cops did not follow the fleeing car. Who were those people? We'll never know.

What we do know is that 3 shots were fired, 3 casings and one live round were found. No bodies nor blood were found anywhere around the house. No damage was observed to the house itself. Where did the bullets go? No one knows. Who fired the gun? No one knows. Whose gun is it? No one knows. The person it is registered to couldn't be found for questioning. The gun is not registered to Mr. L, but it is not clear that it is stolen. The prosecution never made the connection between the gun and Mr. L. Possession, that was their whole goal: proving he had possession. They couldn't do it. They fell short. All defense had to do was to instill reasonable doubt.

I was doubtful. Even without defense's excellent questions of the witnesses.

At 11:15am today, prosecution rested their case. Still without making that final connection.

We stopped for a mid-morning break, came back and were thanked for our service. The defense had asked for a directed verdict while we were out of the room and the judge, who said he's only ever taken the choice away from the jury about 2-3 times in his years and years of sitting the bench, acquitted. We never got to deliberate. It was all over.

So we filed back into the jury deliberation room and finally talked about the one thing that brought us all together and that we were to have no impact on. One person mentioned being surprised, another had no idea what had happened, while a third expressed dismay that the judge got really mad at the prosecution at one point when they wouldn't accept that he was sustaining an objection from the defense. The judge ripped into prosecution angrily when they tried to argue with his Sustained. I was a little surprised at how fierce he got, but as I told the other juror: this is a game with very specific rules and the judge is the referee. What he says goes. We started generally talking. Finally I started laying out what I had been convinced of and I had the whole room listening intently.

I may have started talking with one person, responding to some comment they'd made. I can't remember. Inside two sentences, I had the whole room's undivided attention. I laid it all out, the arguments that I'd planned on using against the rest of the jury if they tried to convict when I was certain the connection had not been made. I didn't tell them specifically that I was going to acquit, but I pointed out that of all the things the prosecution had proved, ownership of the gun was not it. That was the key thing and it hadn't been proved. I was convinced when I left this morning that I was going to be the cause of a hung jury. Whew!

The jury slowly trickled away. The Lady That Had to Go and I chatted for awhile longer down in the jury waiting room while waiting for our respective rides. I wowed her with my calm logical analysis and eloquence. She asked me in a sort of stunned manner, "What do you do again?" and I told her about my plans for a plant nursery. She thinks I should be a lawyer.

Hah! No thank you!

After a little while, and much dissection of the trial, we turned in our badges, walked out the front door of the district courthouse and talked about plants.

Out front, Mr. L was being congratulated and hugged by his friends and family. One family member walked past me and said, "Thank you, ladies". I responded gravely, keeping in mind that we still weren't really supposed to interact with the parties involved, "You're welcome."

Eric arrived, I said goodbye to She Who Had to Go and we went our separate ways.


Tessa said...

On a sort of related note, one that I thought you'd be interested in knowing...


Valerie said...

Wow, how exciting! In a boring not-as-interesting-as-tv-makes-it-out-to-be way!

I was finally called twice in CA but the first time they didn't need me and the 2nd time we were in KS already. Fortunately they didn't make me commute.

Woman with a Hatchet said...

Only some parts were boring. When you think about the fact that it would be up to you and 11 others to determine one man's fate, it stops being boring altogether.

Although those witnesses could drone on forever if the lawyers let them!

It was the total silence of the courtroom that kept trying to lull me to sleep.

UnderemployedNama said...

One of the things making a deep impression on me when I've served on juries is that the experience is the embodiment of duty. We all talk about civic duty, we pay our taxes, recycle, vote, etc. But it's while sitting in a courtroom that the notion of civic duty has been paramount for me, giving rise to fruitless ponderings about how the very idea of duty has changed over the centuries as a prime motive for what people do. Or maybe it's just that I'm an essentially irresponsible person...

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