Wednesday, August 24, 2005

I, The Jury

It’s not that I resent my upcoming jury duty as a waste of my valuable time. Anyone who spends an hour matching up the family socks clearly needs to be reminded of life’s precious brevity. Nor do I resent doing my civic duty. Ask me to help clean up the Los Angeles River and I’ll be out there in hip-waders, happily tugging out grocery carts, styrofoam coolers and body parts. Because, you see, cleaning the Los Angeles River accomplishes something positive, however temporary.

The jury process, on the other hand, is primarily abused by the guilty. The jury selection process is a winking acknowledgement of the overwhelming stupidity of most people and the irrelevancy of the procedure. The final decision is based on the strongest personality in the deliberation room and whatever random prejudices and facts the jurors have dragged in with them.

First, any person who chooses a jury trial over a trial by judge is, more than likely, guilty of the crime. Studies have shown this, and logic would bear it out. You can run the risk of trying your tired alibi in front of a judge who has heard everything including “I can’t have done it, because I had been abducted by aliens that morning” or you can try your luck with twelve people whose knowledge of the law is mostly based on the last half of “Law & Order” episodes (that Benjamin Bratt is soooo cute). So, tomorrow, it’s entirely possible I’ll be sitting there in an inadequately ventilated room, hearing the adult version of “the dog ate my homework”. With any luck, the perpetrator will dredge up some cousin to get up on the stand and say “Yeah! That dog eats homework all the time.” And for this, I get to ask my mother to sacrifice her day’s activities in order to tend my daughter.

Second, why does the lawyer even bother with voir dire? As long as you respond to any question, you’re in. Even that’s not mandatory. I swear the last time I served on a jury, one dead guy got impaneled. When the defense attorney asked if there was any reason why I shouldn’t be on a jury, I explained that a good friend of mine was an Assistant District Attorney and that I knew the “secret” about the guilty picking trial by jury. My first instinct, I explained clearly and honestly, was to assume anyone who got this far along in the system was entirely guilty, and not only of the crime in question but probably a half dozen others. It’s not a good prejudice, but it’s the one you get when your friend the lawyer starts telling you stories over margaritas.

They picked me.

And what I take away from that first experience? The lawyer noted I appeared to understand English and wasn’t flinging dung at him. What I actually said never even registered. So, tomorrow, when asked anything, I plan to blurt lines from “Jabberwocky”:

LAWYER: Ms. Cummings, is there anything about you which might prevent you from being an unbiased juror?

QUINN: Twas brillig and the slithy tove, did gyre and gimble in the wabe.

LAWYER: Do you think you could render an impartial verdict?

QUINN: Shun the frumious bandersnatch!

LAWYER: I have no objections to this juror.

Lastly, let me speak of my experience the last time I was on a jury:

The case involved alleged child abuse. From what we heard, it was a spanking which got out of hand. A neighbor heard a child screaming and called the cops. The neighbor testified with passion, but was clearly getting something beyond a concern for the welfare of a child out of this; I’m going to speculate there was long-standing distaste between these women. Nevertheless, there was a picture of bruising on the child from the police and the mother’s own admission that she sometimes hit her kid too hard. Neither the woman nor the child testified. We adjourned to the jury room.

Here are some of the well-reasoned legal statements I heard in there:

“Nothing wrong with spanking. My mother whaled the tar out of me when I was acting up, made me the man I am today. Used a belt, too. This mother just used her hands. Nothing wrong with that.”

“I didn’t like that neighbor. She’s just like my cousin, always getting in everybody’s business. Bet she made the whole thing up.”

“She probably comes from a country where people hit their kids all the time. Do we know where she was born?”

It took the foreperson an hour just to get people to stop talking about how there was an episode just like this on “Law & Order”, and also “Judge Judy”. One woman wanted to discuss how much she disliked her upstairs neighbor, who seemed to her like the kind of person who would do something like this.

Finally, one man, with the buzz cut and square shoulders of retired military said forcefully, “We’re going to read the definition of legal punishment, and then we’re going to vote.”

He then leaned forward and squinted meaningfully at the worst of the twitterers who, to a person, leaned back and dropped their eyes.

“If you have any meaningful concerns, voice them now. Otherwise, I have a long trip home, and I want to be out before rush hour.”

He stared around the room. The silence almost had a weight. The woman who wanted to talk about her neighbor cleared her throat, and his head snapped around, his eyes focused on her. She shook her head slightly: no problem here, sir.

The foreman handed out paper, and we voted. It was 12-0 in favor of conviction. We trooped out and did our jobs. The defendant’s face never changed expression. We were thanked for our time and hard work, and released.

I’ve thought about that situation ever since. She wasn’t convicted because twelve of her peers thought beyond a reasonable doubt that she was guilty. She was convicted because at least four of those peers were intimidated into voting the way which would allow one guy to be home before dinner.

The wheels of justice grind faster as rush hour approaches.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I want to hear more about the dead guy getting impaneled. I thought they only got elected.


9:55 PM  
Blogger Drew Weeks said...

Knowing someone in the system no longer gets you off a jury. My father-in-law was a retired Superior Court Judge (still filling in as a Senior Judge regularly) and got picked for a jury in the county where he served! On another day he could have been presiding over the case, rather than on the jury.

He purposely was not the chairperson for the jury and found the whole process fasinating.

I have never been called for jury duty, but now I question my planned strategy of greeting the Prosecutor with "Hi, Uncle (insert name here)".

10:45 AM  

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