It’s over. Thank God.
I’ve never done jury duty before this week. I’d been summoned back when I was in college, but because I attended college out-of-state, it was an easy thing to get out of, because I wasn’t even going to be in town. But when I got my summons last year for this year, I swore a blue streak. On principle, I didn’t mind the idea of serving on a jury. I minded the interruption to my daily routine and the hassle it was going to take to make sure that my job didn’t suffer in my absence.
I’m not going to talk about specifics of my case, but I am going to talk about the process and the TYPE of case it was, as well as the verdict. I will say this, though: if you ever have the opportunity to serve on a jury and it doesn’t pose a financial hardship to you, do it. Seriously. Yeah, it’s an interruption and it’s stressful depending on the type of case you have to hear, but it’s utterly fascinating and educational. I’m not a patriot or anything, and I’ll be the first to tell you, when it comes to civic duty, I’m pretty ambivalent. But having an inside view of how the justice system works, to be a part of it, is really, really important. It gives you a new perspective on your community and law enforcement. It can reinforce already held views, but really, it made me feel a part of a the community in a way I never imagined. So while I’ll still grumble about speed traps and photo surveillance of traffic, I have a new appreciation for what the police force has to do when a crime’s committed and what the legal system goes through to follow up.
Yeah, I was on a murder trial.
So, here’s how jury duty works in my county. Obviously, this process may differ from county to county, state to state. But HERE (no, I’m not telling you WHERE, you silly people), this is what happened: in November, I received my summons to appear before the court in December so that I could be selected for a panel to serve on a jury for the 2013 term of January through June. This was my opportunity to accept, get a deferral, or try and get excused. Once I worked with my employer and determined that, while being a pain in the ass, I could get coverage for my absence and still get paid for my time away from the desk, I said, “Fine. I’ll do it.” My county allowed me to write a letter stating that I was willing to serve on a jury for the first half of 2013 and that the county clerk had my permission to assign me to a panel so I wouldn’t have to miss work in December. So they did. I got a letter late December assigning me to panel three, and it listed the dates I was expected to report for duty. Here’s how my assigned dates were spread:
January: one date
February: two separate dates
March: four separate dates
April: three separate dates
May: one date
June: two separate dates
Now, the actual letter listed the specific dates I was supposed to report in, and on the day before, after 6:00 pm, I was supposed to call the county clerk’s office to get instructions as to whether I actually had to show up on my assigned date. That’s right: I might be told, the day before, that my panel was excused, that the court didn’t have a trial and therefore my services weren’t needed.
January, I was excused. February, I was excused. My first date in March was this past Monday, and all day Friday, as I was preparing for the possibility, I thought: I’m gonna have to go in. It’s a flipping Monday and I bet I’ll have to go in. So Friday, after 6:00, I call, and sure enough: panel three through freaking… twelve, maybe? There were a lot of panels, let’s put it that way, that had to report Monday morning to the court house at 8:45. So I had all weekend to look forward to it.
Monday, I arrived. There were a TON of people waiting. Once we started, the clerk started filling the jury box. She announced a name and told that person what chair to sit in. My name was the second called. Yay for me, right? And so on and so forth, until the chairs were filled, and then the judge started explaining what type of case it was and how long the expected duration would be. In this case: murder, and it was expected the case would last no later than Wednesday. So whomever was on the jury had to be available for at least three days. She gave all of us in the box and still waiting a chance to request to be excused: maybe you had a paid vacation coming up, or were going to the doctor, or had a sick family member, or something. Half a dozen people were excused for these reasons, and then the accused was named and the list of witnesses were read off: if anyone knew these people, or was related to those people as in second cousin or greater (the rule of thumb: if you thought you were related but weren’t sure how, it counted), then you were excused. Then the lawyers started talking to us. They thanked us for being there, for serving our community, and started talking about how evidence and testimony works, etc. They started talking about various things and asking the potential jurors how they felt about said things (i.e.: were you or a family member ever involved in a violent crime at any time, and if so, could you put those experiences and feelings aside to rule fairly? Are you or a family member a member of law enforcement, an EMT, etc, and could you rule fairly regardless of how you feel about people you know in those professions, for good or ill? How do you feel about the second amendment and the right to bear arms?). The State (prosecutor) and the Defense did this, and then they had to each list a name of a juror in the box (where I was) that they would like to see excused (for whatever reason). New names were called for the box, and questions were asked of the new person. Then both sides gave the judge a name of someone they would like excused. This kept going until all the seats were filled and an alternate was chosen.
IT TOOK FOREVER. No wonder, given how big the case was, and how many panels were called into court that day. I kid you not: they pretty much went through all the potential jurors before the box was filled, and I sat there for three-and-a-half hours, needing to pee like nobody’s business. Hell, I was hoping to get excused just so I could run to the bathroom!
Once we were selected, the case started. I don’t watch a lot of lawyer or cop shows. The only lawyer show I’ve ever watched with a regular basis was Matlock once upon a time ago, and the cop shows I watch either have a supernatural/paranormal touch like Fringe, or they involved institutions other than the actual police (Justified, my favorite, is about the U.S. Marshals, and The Following is mostly about the FBI). I didn’t have any major expectations of things being like Hollywood, but I was surprised by a few things:
1) When the jury leaves or arrives in a courtroom, everyone has to rise. We’re important!
2) When the State and the Defense have to argue about whether or not a piece of evidence can be admitted into the court, we, the jury, had to leave the room.
3) When the State finishes presenting its case against the defendant, the jury has to leave the room so that the Defense and the judge can all decide if there is sufficient evidence to proceed with the trial. If not, the jury doesn’t see or hear the Defense, and they’re excused. If so, the jury hears the Defense and the trail continues.
Overall, the experience was as pleasant as possible. The county clerk made sure we had plenty of sugar, water, and caffeine to keep us going. The judge, after the initial jury selection, made sure we had bathroom breaks at regular hour or so intervals. 🙂 While this was a big case, it wasn’t so big that the jury was sequestered (which meant we wouldn’t be allowed to go home until the trial was over and the state would pay to put us in hotels and keep us away from the public until said trial was over). The defendant had three charges leveled against him: 1) murder in the first degree and premeditated, 2) murder in the first degree while in the act of committing or attempting to commit another crime, and 3) theft.
I will say this: I was rather disappointed in both sides, the State’s and the Defense’s cases. It was obvious we weren’t getting the FULL story, and there were tons of questions all of us WANTED to ask but we couldn’t, because we were the jury. Neither side really presented themselves or their cases very well for what they were alleging (and what they wanted us to believe), and there were times when the theater of the whole thing (on both sides) was downright transparent. A few times, I wanted to respond to the lawyers, correcting them for something they were intentionally misstating as an attempt to drive their specific point home. I wanted to tell them I wasn’t THAT gullible, but hey, if it works on someone, it works, right?
The Defense was claiming the defendant was acting in self-defense and that there wasn’t a theft at all, but rather the defendant was reclaiming his own property. It was… a complex case. Mind you, I wasn’t expecting some glorious revelation of truth to come out of the proceedings when they were all over, but I didn’t expect that I would feel so unsatisfied with the whole thing, and what both sides were asking us to believe.
We did not convict for murder in the first degree. We ended up taking it down to 1) voluntary manslaughter, 2) voluntary manslaughter while in the act of committing another crime (theft) and 3) convicting of theft (of course).
Deliberations were fascinating. People I assumed would think one way didn’t, and the hold-outs in the group surprised me. All of us, it seemed, really wanted to get it right, and none of us were quick to line up to the State’s case nor the Defense’s case. But it was tough. We started deliberations around 11:00 am and didn’t finish until almost 4:30 pm (but they did feed us for lunch, which rocked). None of us wanted to be the one who read the verdict to the judge (and in turn, the defendant). None of us wanted to be the face of the jury. In the end, it wasn’t me (thank god). Maybe I’ll have the balls the next time, but let me tell you: when you’re delivering a guilty verdict, it’s true: it’s pretty damn tough to look at the defendant once the decision was made that they are, indeed, guilty.
But there was never any doubt the defendant killed someone. Even he admitted that. The theft issue was amazingly more complex, but I feel we made the right decision in the end. And in the end, when the judge accepted the verdict and dismissed us, the bailiff led us back to our room and said that he thought we’d made the right decision. That meant a lot, since he knew all the stuff about the case that hadn’t been admitted into the court room. The judge was super-awesome, even came to visit us after to thank us, ask us if we had questions about the case now that the verdict was accepted, and asked how they (meaning the overall system) could improve to make the jury experience better. Also, she excused us for the rest of our term of jury duty, so I no longer have to show up with my panel (even though my panel has three more dates to report for), because I served my community with this case.
It was fascinating. It was hard. But I learned a lot, and if I get called up for jury duty again, I won’t mind going for another round, though I’ll admit: I hope I get a civil case. This criminal stuff is nerve-wracking.
Most entertaining part of the whole case? Listening to the expert testimony from the forensic pathologist. Now I know why all those forensic shows are so popular: that shit? Is fascinating. Our expert witness made me want to re-think my career and go into forensic pathology. Granted, once upon a time ago, before I started college, I did want to major in criminology, and I’ve always had an interest in such a field. But still. Fascinating.
But I’m glad it’s over. I’m glad my mental energies can go back to their usual focuses. It’s time to get back in the saddle. Back to work, back to writing. I’ve still got Chapter One of Space Vampires to finish, after all.