Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Joys Of Jury Service

Last Tuesday, I completed my annual visit to Downtown Los Angeles and the county courthouse to serve my jury duty.
In Los Angeles county, the policy is one day and or one trial. In other words, one is on call for a week. If you call everyday and are not asked to go to the assigned court in your summons, you are done.
However, I did not dodge that bullet.
And I should make the admission that I am one of the few people that actually likes jury duty. I see it as a huge contribution to the American idea of citizenship. What amazes me is how much so many people will do and or say anything to get out of jury duty.
On Monday, August 18, I had to make my trek on the Gold Line light rail system. It is one of the few conveniences of local public mas transit. Its a short walk or bike ride from Union Station to the courthouse.
I arrived at the appointed time, went through the metal detector putting my backpack through and all my other stuff in a large plastic bowl. After going through that, I went to the 11th floor assembly room and went through the orientation that I have head and seen so many times that I could give it. After that, it was time to wait to see if I would be called as park of a larger panel to a courtroom. And before lunch, a nice short hour and a half, I was part of a group of 30 called to a courtroom.
After lunch we were told by the judge that the case we would hear would be about a residential first degree burglary and it would be a short trial. As it turned out, a short trial of six days. It took two full days to pick and seat a jury. Twelve jurors and two alternates, a standard for a criminal case.
So we were treated to the opening statements of the prosecutor and the defense attorneys. And to be clear, I thought that the openings left a lot to be desired.
The short version of the trial is that a 20-year old guy went to Hollywood with his brother to "pick up chicks" as was described in not so many words by both sides. The one brother supposedly hooked-up with a gal and went back to her apartment. That left the defendant all by his lonesome. After about five minutes, he did not think that his brother would come back for him and he began to wander. Wander all the way up the Hollywood Hills to a nice, large home that had a For Lease sign. After finding a way to break into the home, which was a sizable dumbbell, the defendant opened the door and went inside. He went to the kitchen and pulled out a lot of food and drink. But the one thing he did not count on was that the homeowner would be home. She was and called the police, who responded quickly. Quickly enough to prevent the defendant from doing anything more. He tried to escape but ended up leaning in a hiding position next to a tree.
But the defense had an amusing version of events. They did not argue that the defendant did not break into the home. But the reason they used is that the defendant was tired, hungry and was looking for a place to sleep. And that the Metro train subway stopped running after midnight, when the event occurred. And he had no way to get home because he did not have a cell phone. But he did have $9.60c in his pocket.
A note here for pick-up artists, aka PUAs.
If you expect to pick up chicks, you kind of really need more than $9.60c in your pocket. Really.
Mind you this is Hollywood. There are many fast food establishments. There are gas stations. There are even such archaic things as pay telephones. He could have called his parents that he lives with. He could have even done that as a collect call. He could have grabbed a bite at a fast food establishment or even a gas station. In other words, there were many other ways to get home to sleep that the defense was trying to convince us jurors of.
So in the trial we heard from three uniform police officers, a detective and the defendant himself. No one was especially memorable except the defendant. For he was unbelievably bad. He did himself no favor whatsoever. In fact, it was his testimony that cemented what I believed to be the outcome. Much of his testimony was contradictory and of him trying to sound smarter than he was.
After the testimony, we heard the closing statements. Twice from the prosecutor and once from the defense. And each time the prosecutor made her argument stronger. The defense attorney, a very able public defender, just stuck to the story.
We received the jury instructions and then proceeded to the jury deliberation room.
At some point, I had mentioned that on my last trial, I was the jury foreman. And someone remembered and they all asked if I would want to be foreman for this trial and I agreed.
The first thing that we did was take a vote. And it seemed ominous to me. Seven of us said guilty. Five said not guilty. So there were going to be deliberations. And there should have been. And FTR, we were a helluva lot more serious than the O. J. Simpson jury that took a whole four hours of deliberation. In fact it did take us about seven hours of deliberation. And between a couple of us, including my self, four of the original jurors that voted not guilty changed to guilty. But there was one woman, one woman that held the defendant's fate. And he should be damn thankful to her. The problem for that juror is one of the two elements the prosecutor had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. And the one that the woman juror was having problems with was intent. Because there was nothing stolen from the home, it made her not sure he intended to take any items from the said home. However, if he had even taken a bite of food and or a swig of wine, that would be enough to prove intent. But this juror just could not come around. Even after two different read backs and her  conceding some points that we agreed to, she still could not come around. There was nothing more we could talk about. We took one more vote and it was 10-2 for a guilty verdict. But in a criminal case, the jury must be unanimous for conviction. And we were not. And we would not be.
So I called the bailiff and we eventually went back to the courtroom and were questioned by the judge. After a couple of private consults with the attorneys, the judge declared a mistrial.
I have to admit, I was disappointed and just a wee bit bitter. I thoroughly believe that had the police not acted quickly, the defendant would have ate the food, have some drink and would have taken whatever he could fit in his pocket. But we all had to agree. And we could not.
A couple of things that made me realize it was not a total waste of time.
First, the defendant had been in jail since he was arrested in late March. How do we know? A couple of jurors made mention that while he was wearing a nice dress shirt, he had jail-issued pants and jail slippers. So he either was not given bail or the amount was more than his parents wanted to pay. Or they wanted to teach him a lesson.
Second, even though he probably will not be recharged and may already be out on the streets, he spent time in jail. More than likely, had we found him guilty, he probably would have been credited for time served. Because of state prison overcrowding, many cases like this a convicted burglar serves time in a county jail. And Los Angeles County jail is like a state prison with constant overcrowding.
My initial reaction of dismay and bitterness was wrong. It was wrong because the system did work.
The defendant had a speedy and fair trial. A jury of his peers, us, looked at all of the evidence seriously and studiously. We talked, talked and talked. And because, rightfully, in a criminal case the bar is that all jurors must agree to convict or not convict. If a juror can not agree as was the case in this trial, we had no choice. The judge realized we were serious and deliberative and declared a mistrial.
Throughout this post, I have referred to it as jury duty. Yet I realize that it is in fact jury service. We should not look at it as a duty but that we are serving our fellow citizens. Yes, it is about a week of our time that we could be working or doing whatever, but do we really want to not be a part of the process? Do we really want to not participate in a compact of what it means to be a citizen of the United States? I do not and if one really thinks about it, they would not want to give up that right. They would not want to have a bunch of so-called professional jurors that have been proposed many times in American history.
It is a joy of citizenship to be asked to participate in jury service, even when it does not turn out the way one thinks that it should.
Oh, but once, just once, I would like to be assigned to my local courthouse about four blocks from home!

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