Thursday, July 09, 2009

Adventures in Jury Duty

A couple of weeks ago I got a summons from Pierce County; I was to report to the courthouse at 8:30 AM on Monday morning for jury duty. I generally don't worry about jury duty all that much; when I've had to report in the past I inevitably end up being quickly voir dire'd off and sent on my way. Much to my chagrin it doesn't work like that in Pierce County; when they say "2 weeks" they mean "2 week regardless of whether you've already rendered a verdict or been kicked off a panel". That's annoying, but the annoyance is compounded by the fact that they can't actually tell you what days you'll have to report ahead of time. You've got to wait until 4:30 the night before to find out if you have to report the following day. Not so good if you need to (re)schedule meetings and such.

When I announced that I was going to be out on duty some of my colleagues suggested that I could get out of it by ranting about my name being in upper case on the jury summons. I argued that was low-grade, garden variety loonery. If I really wanted to get out I'd start arguing with the presiding judge about the gold fringe on the courtroom flag instead. That'd put me way out into militia territory; if you're going to be crazy, do it right.

Rather than go that route, as briefly entertaining as it might have been, I just showed up at 8:30 with the rest of the pool and waited for the festivities to being. While I was sitting there in the jury holding tank I couldn't help but notice how fricking white all the prospective jurors were. I live in Tacoma proper, a short ride on the #3 bus from the county courthouse, and the surrounding area is tremendously varigated. But looking around in the waiting room there were only four or five non-Caucasians in the lot, which surprised me until I remembered that a lot of Pierce County is lily white. I couldn't help but think that a lot of the defendants who were going to go through court were pretty much screwed from the start on account of that particular demographic quirk; so much for a jury of your peers.

Anyhow, after a little while the orientation-related-program-activities began, which generally reinforced my belief that the social contract is in tatters. The jury coordinator in charge of orienting us spoke at an eighth-grade level which, sadly enough, proved to be too much for some of the prospective jurors to follow. The entire process was tremendously paternal; the coordinator spent an inordinate amount of time telling us where we could park and where there were places to eat and so on as if we weren't capable of fending for ourselves. At one point she actually went so far as to say, in describing the role of the courthouse personnel, that "we're like the moms and you're like the children". And let's not forget to give a big cheer for the civil service! The coordinator made a point of telling us not to look for her after 4:30, cause she's always bolts at that time so she can make her 4:34 bus home.

The actual description of how the process worked was equally inane; on more than one occassion the process of being selected for a trial was likened to "dating a courtroom". The meat of the orientation process was a rehash of 6th grade civics: we got some handouts, watched a video, and received a verbal explanation all covering the same material. Maybe I'm being unduly harsh but shouldn't people, as a matter of general knowledge, know the definitions of "plaintiff" and "defendant" (or the difference between "civil" and "criminal" for that matter)? That they feel it necessary to go over such basic concepts makes me cranky because it implies that the majority of people selected for jury service are tremendously out of touch with the workings of government.

Moving on... during my term of service I was selected for two panels, one for a DUI and one for a domestic violence case, both if which were interesting in their own ways. I don't know how typical this is, but during the selection phase of the DUI trial it was plain to see the main outlines of the prosecution and defense cases. The prosecuting attorney got up and started delivering a monologue about the elements of the crime, what it meant to be "driving" and "impaired" and so on, to the point where I though "huh, this guy's basically giving his opening statement". Same thing with the defense attorney; based on the questions she asked it was pretty clear that they were going to claim that some amount of physical activity prior to his arrest, rather that intoxication, resulted in the defendants poor performance on the field sobriety test. I was dismissed from this particular case after questioning; it's impossible to know why for sure, but here are some answers that I gave that made me stand out from the rest of the jury:

  • I knew that a can of Bud Light had less alcohol than a typical IPA. Based on some comments that the prosecutor made about the effect of drink size and type it may have been the case that the defendant had a few pints of something strong-ish rather than a couple of Buds.
  • I objected to being asked to rate the degree of required certainty about the prosecution's case on a scale of 1 - 100. If it was anything I said this was probably the answer that did it; I told the defense attorney that judgements of that type were incommensurable with a numeric scale. Based on responses that she later elicited from other potential jurors it sound like she wanted people to be 100% certain that the prosecution had proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Which is part of the reason that I objected to the question; what does it mean to be 100% certain about a predicate ("beyond a resonable doubt") that already has a degree of inherent uncertainty? As I said, that's probably what got me kicked off.
  • I knew that there have recently been issues with field alcohol tests and BAC meters, having read a Slashdot article on that particular topic not so long ago.

I made it onto the actual jury for the domestic violence case. This is probably because the only questions I answered were what I did for a living and my feelings about being summoned1. It was surprising how many people on the jury pool were intimately accquainted with domestic violence; 3 people out of a panel of 15 were dismissed for cause on this account, and a few more who were not dismissed immediately had immediate experience with the issue. One woman in particular was tragicomic: she'd been arrested for abuse, her daughter and son-in-law had bother been arrested for beating each other, and her son had been arrested as well. So after dismissing some jurors for cause and (likeely) eliminating others through peremtory challenges the odds of me getting on were pretty good.

The facts of the case were not particularly interesting. The long and the short is "Police see defendant beating a woman, defendant claims that she fainted and he was trying to revive her". Not a whole lot of courtroom drama; the two officers gave their testimony, the defendant gave his, and then we were off to the jury room. The victim was strikingly absent; if the entire incident was a big misunderstanding you'd think she'd show up and say something to that effect.

I wonder if the defense attorney was new on the grounds that she asked a lot of open-ended questions during cross examinationn of the police officers. Granted that the extent of my legal education is doing Mock Trial, but one of the things I remember very clearly is that you're supposed to ask "Yes or No" questions on cross because allowing hostile witnesses to explain themselves generally doesn't do your side any good. Same deal here, she'd ask the cops about some contradiction or inconsistency and then allow them to explain the contradiction away.

I was vaguely annoyed with her by the end of the trial because she kept asking the police officers why they didn't take the victim to a hospital or something if she'd been assaulted. This was even after they explained that the victim refused treatment and that the law prevented them from doing anything more unless she was a danger to herself or others. Which is another reason why I think the defense attorney might be new, because she raised the issue again in closing even though she had to know that the police officers were correct as a matter of law. That's not aggressive advocacy but rather arguing in bad faith; it didn't earn any points with me.

Once in the jury room the major question was whether we should believe the officers, the defendant, or both. No one had accused the officers of just making shit up; the defense's contention was that they had indeed seen something going on, but had mis-interpreted an attempt to aid the victim as an assault. That was the bit that didn't stand up to scrutiny; it seemed highly unlikely that, given the circumstances, the officer could have mistaken a woman screaming and getting slapped for anything other than what it was. Moral of the story, kids, is don't beat up people in front of police officers... it's probably not going to work out for you.

In addition to the assault charge we also had to decide whether or not the defendant was resisting arrest. There's no doubt that he was, but that's in large part due to the fact that the relevant statute is pretty fricking draconian. In Pierce County, at least, the appropriate response to a cop telling you that you're under arrest is to roll over and take it; compliance has to be immediate and complete or else you're technically in violation of the law. Sure, the arrest has to be lawful and they have to identify themselves, but officers are under no obligation to tell you why you're being arrested or even give you time to comply. Requiring someone to yield to authority without a reason rubs me the wrong way but, from a pratical standpoint, I don't know that I can think of an alternative. In the very least, however, there needs to be appropriate weasel language which provides people with time to actually comply with any sort of directives officers might issue.

This was the first time I've actually been on a jury, so it was edifying to watch the deliberation process from the inside. The foreperson leads the discussion of each charge, which gives em first mover advantage in terms of framing the deliberation if ey choose to do so; as a matter of process the foreperson can have a lot more influence on the outcome that the other jurors in the room. I wasn't foreperson, but my fellow jurors were pretty wishy-washy and seemed to be easily swayed by articulate talk; I get the sense that it wouldn't have been difficult to talk them out of the resisting arrest charge if I'd had a mind to. I wish the case had been less open-and-shut; it would have been far more informative to see a prolonged deliberation where people were actually in disagreement about the charges.

1 "An interesting excercise in civics, but I do have working piling up back at the office."


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