Recent readers of The Null Set have probably noted that I’ve mentioned having jury duty for these past two weeks. Since people read this blog from around the world and I’m sure at least some of those countries don’t have jury trials (I’d be interested to hear about which countries do and don’t) and even in countries that have jury trials it’s probably not an everyday occurrence to serve on one, I thought my experience as a juror might be found interesting.
The first thing that should be noted about jury duty is that there’s no guarantee of actually sitting on a jury, at least around here. A pool of people is randomly chosen and then assigned an order (I mailed my pre-jury questionnaire to the municipal court back quickly and I think that put me at the top of the list). Each day one has to call the jury hotline number to see if he/she is needed the next day. The last time my Dad had jury duty (for the county court) he was number 477 of 500 and they didn’t even get to 100 in the course of the two week period that he had serve.
I was first called in on Tuesday of the first week for what was the first trial of my two week jury duty term. There were roughly 55 people who showed up that day. The trial would have been for three guys who were charged with assault with baseball bats. I most likely would have been excused from serving on the jury since my Dad worked with one of those guys and I was familiar with the case. The trial didn’t happen because, at the last minute, the three guys decided to accept the plea deal and the jurors were sent home. (Since we didn’t actually serve on a jury we were still in the pool.)
The next three trials burned through the rest of the juror pool so for the trial on Wednesday of the second week (July 15) they started back at the top and I was called back in. This time there were only 23 jurors that showed up (25 had been called) and I was hoping since this meant it was probably a smaller crime that the defendant would just accept the plea deal and I’d get to go home again. That didn’t happen and, eventually, the bailiff told us the order that we would be in to fill the jury. I knew they needed 8 jurors and an alternate for the jury so I was hoping for a number as near as 23 as possible.
The bailiff called out the numbers and I was … number 8.
The jurors were taken to the court room and we found out the defendant was being tried for Telecommunication Harassment (I think that was the exact charge). The first eight perspective jurors were seated – I being Juror 8 – and were questioned by the prosecutor, the defense attorney, and the judge to see if any of us should not be on the jury.
I cursed my luck for being number 8; I figured if I’d’ve gotten number 15 or higher I would have been in the clear. The first few questions – are you part of a case that either the prosecutor, judge, or defense attorney are involved in, have you been convicted of a serious crime, etc. – were not a problem. When the question was if there was some reason why you could not pay attention to the case today one of the gentlemen raised his hand and said he received a call just before entering the courtroom that his niece had just been killed in a car accident. He was, of course, excused.
He was clearly very broken up over this – and not just trying to get out of jury duty, as some later people obviously were – I wish I could have done something worthwhile for him. Instead, all I could do is reflect on how random and sudden tragedy can be and how I should remember to complain about my life only when there’s something that truly warrants it.
After a moment of silence as this gentleman left the courtroom, the questioning began again. Several people were excused because they had been victims of or knew someone close to them who had been a victim of telecommunication harassment. One lady loudly and boldly proclaimed that she harassed her boyfriend all the time on the phone. She was asked if she’d ever been convicted for that – she hadn’t – but she was still excused. One lady was excused because she’s a bus driver for the local transit authority and had several unpleasant run-ins with the defendant and another had been a neighbor of the defendant. The judge made sure we wouldn’t consider their knowledge of the defendant as evidence for the trial. One gentleman was excused because the prosecutor, as an attorney years ago, once helped him to keep his driver license after getting in legal trouble for mishandling a firearm and this would make him favorably disposed to the prosecution. One of the later replacement jurors, an elderly grandma, said she’d been convicted of conspiracy to distribute drugs a couple of years ago – she was excused. In the end it took 22 of the 23 jurors to get 8 jurors and an alternate for the trial. I kept track of the time and the jury selection turned out to last longer than the trial.
Of the final eight jurors, four turned out to be veterans. They were willing to do the duty given to them – this time to be a juror – and this provided me another point of evidence showing the higher quality of citizen that veterans generally are.
Opening statements were given before the lunch break and during the lunch break we were all free to go out and find food. Which I thought was a bit odd, especially since while eating my lunch at a local restaurant the defendant passed my table and said ‘hi’.
With lunch over, the trial started back up. The prosecution called three witnesses. The series of events went like this; the defendant tried to get a restraining order against his girlfriend and was not pleased with how the initial hearing went, three days later he stormed into the courthouse demanding to meet with the judge that denied him the restraining order, this wasn’t possible – of course – and eventually a deputy sheriff needed to escort him out, 15 minutes later he called the courthouse and the same secretary that this guy confronted face-to-face and physically intimidated in the courthouse happened to pick the phone up, he proceeded to threaten this secretary by saying that no one was listening to him and he was going to make them pay and that he was in the Army and Marines twice and he knew how to take care of business.
The defendant was in his 50’s, maybe 60, but still spry enough that the threat of bodily harm or damage to property was still very believable. I expected the defense to contest some key point to this series of events, instead, the defense attorney’s only argument seemed to be that people get mad and sometimes go further with what they say then what they really mean. The other thing that seemed odd during the trial was the defense attorney said he was going to have the defendant testify but, after a 10 minute conference with the judge and prosecutor in the judge’s chamber, decided not too.
Closing arguments went next and the judge gave us jurors our final instructions – which took like 30 minutes and almost put me to sleep since it was mostly giving us definitions of what words like harassment meant in the law. The alternate juror was excused at this point once the jury was asked if any of us saw any reason why we couldn’t deliberate the case. We were then escorted to the juror room to begin deliberating.
We were first asked to pick a jury foreperson. Three people spoke up, each saying that this one guy should do it and everyone else agreed that he should. Immediately, it was clear that 7 of the 8 jurors were ready to convict. The eighth thought the defendant clearly shouldn’t be convicted.
At the root, I think the reason this gentleman did not want to convict the defendant was because this juror had been a medic in Vietnam and he disliked the automatic association between soldier and “violent baby-killer”.
He raised many points why the defendant shouldn’t be convicted. Five (including myself) of the seven jurors actively tried to convince him to vote guilty by contesting his points and giving arguments why he should be convicted. I didn’t say all that much but did speak up three times.
The first was when this gentleman asked the other jurors if we would have felt threatened by the defendant’s actions. The unstated accompanying statement to this is that maybe the secretary just over-reacted. The juror pool was 7 males and 1 female. I think no one wanted to admit to feeling threatened under the same circumstances as the secretary in front of everyone. I didn’t care. I spoke up that if I had been in the secretary’s position I would have definitely felt threatened. People who feel no one is listening to them and wanting to “fix” that are the dangerous people.
The second time I spoke up was when the gentleman who didn’t want to convict was saying how harassment really should entail more than a single call. The law doesn’t stipulate that – only a single call is needed – but, instead of arguing that, I remembered someone mention a second phone call the defendant made later that day. No one else remembered this so the foreman wrote on a slip of paper asking if there’d been a second phone call and gave the slip of paper to the bailiff after knocking on the closed (and hopefully not locked) door.
Ten minutes later the bailiff opens the door and lets the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, and the lady who typed on that little machine and recorded everything as it was said into an already crowded room. The lady (stenographer?) found the spot in the paper record and read back what was said. He had, in fact, called the courthouse a second time later that day but that was all that was known. He could have called to apologize, for all we knew.
Though, the fact that this secretary had a police officer escort her to and from her car at the courthouse for the next week and half following the confrontation and phone call probably meant he did not apologize.
The third time I spoke up was after stewing on the idea of the secretary over-reacting. I did not like that supposition since it implied a sexist world view that I did not agree with. It finally hit me how to show she wasn’t over-reacting. I pointed out that this secretary has been working that job for 22 years and by the defense’s own questioning we learned that security is needed to be called to the office where the secretary works about once a week. As far as we know this was the first time in 22 years that this lady felt threatened enough by someone to have it prosecuted.
It was right after this that the gentleman decided to switch his vote and we all had to sign a paper stating we found the defendant guilty. Later, the gentleman who didn’t initially want to convict told me that my remembrance of the second phone call was the main reason for him switching his vote.
We were led back into the court room, sat in our correct spots, and the judge read the verdict. The defendant didn’t say anything when he heard the guilty verdict. He was then told he has to return on August 12th for the sentencing phase of the trial.
As the judge told us, the jury is there to determine guilt or innocence and we were not to consider the possible punishment while doing so. In the case of Telecommunication Harassment the maximum penalty is three months in prison and a fine (I think it was a thousand dollars). The punishment is solely in the domain of the judge, the jury has no say in it. That being said, I hope he doesn’t get the maximum punishment. I’m not sure what the punishment should be; I wouldn’t want to have the job the judge has.
When I left the courthouse I didn’t feel proud or happy that the defendant was found guilty. I did feel a sense of accomplishment from seeing through what was asked of me. I still worry that someday I’ll get put on a jury that has to decide a really serious crime and the correct answer won’t be so clear. However, this experience was an interesting one and I’m not averse to serving on a jury again.
So, that was my adventure as a juror.
(Sorry for the wall of text, adding humorous anime screenshots didn’t seem right.)