Friday, May 20, 2016

Adventures in Jury Duty

I don't get it.

Most people I know never get called for jury duty, and if they do get called, they don't get selected for the jury, and if they do get selected, they get some minor case involving a fender-bender or burglary.

Me? I've been called three times in the last five years, gotten picked twice, and both times they've been major cases.

The first was a wrongful death suit involving a flagman who was run over while directing traffic around a construction site. It should've been an open and shut case -- the driver was chewing tobacco and knocked his spit-cup over; he bent over to search for it and took his eyes off the road for a full ten seconds, and by the time he looked up again, it was too late for him to stop or swerve out of the way. But the victim's family hooked up with a lawyer who decided to sue the construction company and two subcontractors. You see, under state law there were supposed to be four warning signs leading up to the construction zone, but on the day of the accident one was missing. Clear negligence! If only that one additional sign had been there, the driver might've behaved differently.

Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, the driver testified he saw the three signs that were present, including the one with a flagman symbol, and still decided that it would be a good moment to search for his cup instead of simply rolling down the window to spit. (It also didn't help that the guy who was killed was in charge of setting up the signs.)

Nonetheless, this case turned into a two week trial, full of expert witnesses estimating the speed the car was traveling, how long the driver's line of sight was at various points on the road, and what the vehicle's stopping distance would've been. They even got the guy who wrote the federal safety regulations for signage at roadwork sites to come in.

Yeah, that was fun to sit through.

Then this last week I got called up again and selected. This time it was a kidnapping trial.

The victim was a single mother with two children, the youngest of whom was the product of a previous, abusive relationship with the defendant. One Friday evening about two years ago, the defendant decided he wanted to see his daughter. The victim talked to him on the phone and told him it was too late and their daughter was getting ready for bed, but he decided to come over anyway. He had no car and drove over on a moped instead. Since he didn't want to drive a moped around on rural roads at night, and the victim didn't want to leave her children alone to drive him home, she let him spend the night. He parlayed this into staying the entire weekend. At some point he conveniently had a friend come over to retrieve the moped, leaving him with no way home on his own.

On Monday morning he finally agreed to leave if the victim would give him a ride home. She accepted, and loaded her daughter in the car to take her to daycare (the older child had already left for school). They stopped at a gas station along the way, and while they were there the defendant pulled a knife and told the victim to get in the passenger seat. He proceeded to drive around for the next eight hours, crossing through multiple jurisdictions in two states, all while ranting about how he would kill the victim for various indiscretions. In particular, during their relationship she'd filed domestic violence charges against him, and he'd spent six months in the slammer. While he was there, his grandmother died and he was denied permission to attend her funeral.

At one point during the ordeal, he took the victim's phone away from her and sent a text to her mother. He told the victim it said, "I hope you'll take care of my children as well as you took care of me," though it later turned out to be a completely innocuous message; he then threw the phone out the window. After learning the victim had a new boyfriend, he threatened to carve his own name on her cheek so no guy would ever want her again, and to pay the new beau a visit with the knife. He also punched her in the mouth, leaving a cut on her lip where a tooth jabbed into it, and scratched her throat with his knife.

Eventually the victim talked the defendant down and got him to take her home. She would've left it at that, but when she showed up to work the next day and her boss saw her injuries, he made her report it to the police. If you're familiar with the way police handle domestic violence, you can probably guess what happened next. The local city police showed up, heard her story and determined that the gas station where the actual abduction started was in the next town over, too bad, so sad, not our jurisdiction. So she called the police for that city, and they decided that since the abduction had only begun in town, it was really a matter for the state cops. So she went to the state police barracks to file a report. They listened to her story and realized the car had crossed the state line before any of the assaults had occurred, which gave them a convenient excuse to forward the incident to the next state.

The state police over here conducted a very cursory investigation, not even bothering to interview the victim, relying instead upon the report from out of state. Basically all they did was confirm that geographic details of her report matched the local area. An officer didn't even talk to the victim until a preliminary hearing several months later, at which point he learned about the discarded cell phone and that the defendant had stopped at gas stations and fast food restaurants at several points during the ordeal. Of course if the officer had found that out right away, he could've pinged the cell phone and located it on the side of the road, and obtained surveillance footage from the various businesses, but by the time he found any of this out it was too late.

Not surprisingly, given all this runaround, when the victim got up to testify in court, there were all kinds of contradictions between her testimony and the various reports she filed, including details coming out at trial that weren't in any of the police reports. The defense attorney tried to apply the logic of detective fiction, where every slight misstatement, omission or contradiction is evidence of a deliberate lie. Unfortunately for him, the victim's testimony was highly compelling, and when he tried to go all Perry Mason on her -- "You said X, now you're saying Y! You're a liar!" -- it made him look like an ass without hurting her credibility. The fact that the state cop who testified came across as a Barney Fife type who shouldn't be assigned any serious investigation didn't help either. It was obvious that any inconsistencies in the victim's stories were a combination of (A) her placing too much confidence in the police and their ability to share information with each other, leading her to believe she didn't need to repeat details that she'd already told to other cops, (B) the various police agencies losing interest when they realized they could palm the case off on somebody else, and (C) the aforementioned Barney Fife type not questioning the victim thoroughly for his investigation.

The one other witness brought in by the State was a counselor for a local women's shelter/helpline. She explained how the victim and defendant both fit the profiles for abusive relationships, and in particular how the victim's reluctance to file a police report is normal in such situations. Pretty standard stuff, but given that the jury was overwhelmingly male (only two women, and one of them an alternate) the prosecutor was obviously concerned we were going to turn out to be a bunch of victim-blaming MRAs. Surprisingly, the counselor's testimony seems to've been superfluous -- I'm not supposed to talk about what went on in deliberations, but I'll just say that not only did nobody question what the counselor said, everyone seemed to've already been familiar with the things she discussed.

For evidence, only two pieces were submitted to the jury (the police reports were discussed but not made available to us). First were a series of pictures of the victim's injuries. Second was the defendant's previous conviction for domestic abuse against the victim. When this was brought in, the judge stressed to us that prior bad acts were not evidence of guilt, and this was only being allowed to show that the victim had reason to believe the defendant's threats.

Where this got weird was during closing arguments. At one point the defense attorney put forth the claim that the victim had previously accused his client of other bad acts, but when the accusations came to trial, the defendant had been acquitted of the charges, which, the lawyer claimed, proved that the victim was a liar. At this point the prosecutor demanded a sidebar, and after a short conference the defense attorney returned to the podium to say, "I should clarify. My client was charged with four counts. He was acquitted of three but convicted on the fourth."

Note to lawyers: Do not treat the jury like idiots.

Even before the prosecutor objected, we all knew the defense attorney was playing fast and loose with the facts. Even if we weren't supposed to consider the prior conviction in our deliberations, that doesn't mean we forgot about it. Trying to distort the truth right in front of us -- not a good move.

But even more than that, the last thing that happens in a trial before closing arguments is the judge delivers instructions to the jury. If anyone on the jury hadn't known the difference between "not guilty" and "innocent" before the trial, we knew now because the judge had explained it to us not half an hour ago. And now here's the defense attorney trying to tell us that because his client was found not guilty, that means he was innocent of the crime and the court concluded his accuser was a liar. No, that's not how it works. We aren't stupid. And it's especially galling in a trial like this because, as the defense attorney himself kept pointing out, it's a case that comes down to whether the State had made its case beyond a reasonable doubt. If we acquitted the defendant, it wasn't going to be because we thought he was a swell guy who didn't do anything wrong. No, it was going to be because the prosecutor didn't have a good enough case. It wouldn't be a repudiation of the victim's story.

So anyway, after all that, the jury finally gets the case. Again, I'm not allowed to talk about deliberations, but suffice it to say that whatever quibbles the defense lawyer raised about the victim's story, we believed the main points were true -- she'd been held against her will by the defendant, and she'd been within our jurisdiction for at least some of that time. The verdict was guilty.

Once the clerk read the verdict, the judge announced a final twist in the case. Under state law, kidnapping comes with an automatic life sentence with no possibility of parole, however, the jury is allowed to recommend mercy, in which case the defendant becomes eligible for parole after fifteen years. None of us were expecting this. Kidnapping is a serious crime, obviously, but life without parole? That's bigger than we thought, and we weren't expecting the decision to fall to us.

Both sides got to call witnesses to sway us. The prosecution brought the victim back to the stand where she talked about all the other horrible things the defendant had done during their relationship, including butting his head through a car window, and yelling at her son so loudly he pissed his pants.

And then the defense called his client.

For us on the jury, this was a moment we'd all wanted. The standard of proof in a criminal trial is "beyond a reasonable doubt," not "beyond all doubt," and no matter how certain you are of the verdict, there's always going to be a nagging voice in the back of your head saying, "Yeah, but what if you got it wrong? What if everyone was lying, or the guy just had a crappy lawyer? How can you really be certain?" And even though a defendant opting not to testify can't be interpreted as a sign of guilt, one of those questions you're always going to be asking is, "What if the defendant had testified? What if he got up on the stand and said, 'Everything she told you is bullshit?' Would it have made any difference?" And here we had, at last, a chance to hear the defendant. Would he say something that made us realize we'd screwed up? Or would he confirm everything we thought?

When the defendant got on the stand, the first thing we noticed was the tattoo around his neck. Now during the trial, the counselor had noted that he had the names of his children (yes, he spawned with multiple women) tattooed across his face. She identified this as a sign of a controlling personality and linked it to his threat to carve his name on the victim's face. But neither she nor the prosecutor had ever mentioned this other tattoo, and from the jury box we'd been too far away to see it. But now, with him sitting just arms length from us at the witness stand, we had a clear view. Around the entire circumference of his neck, in blackletter script, was the motto, "WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND."

Now obviously this isn't determinative by itself. Lots of people get tattoos in their youth that they come to regret later. But still, you don't get a motto tattooed on you -- and certainly not somewhere so prominent -- unless it meant something important to you at some point. And a motto like that combined with everything we'd heard from the prosecution didn't speak of somebody who's able to let things go.

And then the defendant started speaking. He talked about his life and how he'd made mistakes. He said he fell in with a bad crowd when he was fifteen -- which prompted the prosecutor to ask her only question on cross examination, "How old are you now?" His answer -- 35. He mentioned his children and how much it tore him up that he'd never be able to see his one daughter again, and that his other children would have to visit him in prison.

The one thing he never said -- that he was sorry. Even if, for reasons of appeal, he didn't want to admit guilt in the kidnapping, we'd heard enough about his other behavior towards the victim that he clearly had stuff to apologize for. He not only didn't show any remorse, but it didn't even seem to occur to him that acknowledging the harm he caused others should be a prerequisite for mercy. When he talked about how he'd screwed up his life, it was only to address how it had affected him, not those around him.

His final strike came when his lawyer asked him what he'd been planning to do if he'd been acquitted. He explained that he had a friend in Colorado who was going to hook him up with a job and a place to stay, and he'd been planning to move out there and start over. Then he looked straight at us in the jury and said, "But I guess you have other plans for me." Even here, he wouldn't acknowledge that his actions had taken him to this point. No, he blamed us for his situation, just like he blamed "a bad crowd" for putting him on the wrong path. Nothing he said in his testimony indicated that he took any responsibility for his actions.

After that his attorney gave up. We could see him deflate. He asked a few more questions, prompting his client to talk about a correspondence course he was taking for a theology degree, but clearly the lawyer's heart wasn't in it any longer. He stumbled through his last few questions, clearly knowing that he'd lost.

It still took us some time to reach a decision. Sending somebody to prison for life is a tough call, even somebody who so clearly has no chance of reform. Ultimately what it came down to was a certainty that if we granted mercy, then in fifteen years we'd see a news story about a woman who was murdered by her psycho ex who'd just gotten out of prison for kidnapping her. There was no way we could live with that. As awful as life in prison may be, better him than her.

We returned to the courtroom and delivered our verdict -- no mercy.

Supposedly it's two years before I'm eligible for jury duty again, but I hope this is the last time I ever get the call. I've done my part. Somebody else can handle it next time.

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