My Jury Duty Experience – Day 2
I recently served as a juror on a criminal trial. I blogged about Day 1’s experiences are here. Below are my impressions about the process from opening statements through jury deliberations and delivering the verdict. At this point I wasn’t able to take my own notes anymore (the few notes I did take were scribbled at lunch or other breaks). The notes about testimony and questions that I did take had to be left at the courtroom at the conclusion of the trial.
Still on Day 1….
11:40 AM – The trial begins with opening statements. The prosecution (the state’s attorney) went first. She is young and obviously nervous and seems a little detached but hit on the main points. I now understand what my moot court coaches meant about not using any paper when delivering arguments; it’s distracting, among other things. The defense is next and he gives the impression of being invested in his client’s fate. But he rambles a bit and doesn’t hit home on the points that I think he should (but I can’t let that factor into my eventual decision-making) Before we’d been instructed that opening statements are not be considered evidence for deliberations. The first witnesses called is a victim of one of the crimes, followed by police officers who responded to the scene of the crime (the charges against the defendant are theft charges). The charges surround the theft of a motorcycle from someone’s residence and the theft of a so-called bait motorcycle (i.e. a motorcycle owned by the county that is parked as anyone else would park their motorcycle but in an area in which here is a high rate of vehicle theft).
12:30 PM – Lunch time. We’re allowed to leave the floor. There’s a cafeteria on ground floor and several eating establishments close to the courthouse.
12:35 PM – I found my scarf!! Someone turned it in to the main information desk at the entrance to the courthouse. During lunch I’m joined by a fellow juror – a black American – and it turns out that his grandfather is Jamaican. Conversation turned to his family trying to do business in Jamaica once…more on that in an upcoming post but suffice it say, they’re no longer trying to do business in Jamaica…
1:30 PM to 4:30/5 PM – Court is back in session and the presentation of witnesses continues. By the end of the day both the prosecution and the defense had presented their cases. The process is inherently adversarial but that does not mean it is hostile or an unpleasant atmosphere. At various points in each side’s presentation there are objections. When an objection is made, the judge asks on what basis (e.g. leading the witness, or hearsay) and then issues his decision right then (i.e. objection sustained or objection overruled), which determines whether the witness can answer the question. The defendant did take the stand and at one point the prosecution raised an objection regarding his responsiveness to a question (i.e. objection, answer non-responsive) and the objection was sustained. The jury was instructed to disregard the defendant-witness’ answer and the answer was stricken from the record. On at least one occasion the jury is asked to leave the courtroom so that the judge can issue a ruling on some objection regarding evidence. Closing arguments would be held first thing tomorrow morning and we’re told to report to court by 9:30 AM. After closing arguments, the jury will be charged and we’ll deliberate on the charges and evidence.
After Day 1, my Impressions on the case so far..
Well, I know I’d have done some things differently regarding presentation of evidence and the witnesses. First of all the defendant needed to be better prepped. His prior convictions were brought into issue because they may or may not have a bearing on his character for truthfulness NOT to show that he has the propensity to commit crimes. There were points in his testimony when he was convincing – plaintive even – and I wanted to believe him but certain aspects of his telling of the events leading up to and surrounding the theft didn’t add up. I wanted to believe him but I wasn’t sure; I did feel sorry for him though. Alas, pity is not enough. Do I think he was lying? No I didn’t then and don’t now. I do think that he knew more than he was telling, though…and that he has made some seriously suspect life choices. Those were the tangibles. The intangibles like sitting up straight are important. Look confident, not cocky or obnoxious. Don’t look defensive even though you are on trial. Generally, the defense’s witnesses were unimpressive. The older gentlemen was credible but I don’t think he added much to the defense’s case, and created a bit more confusion than was helpful. Also the defense mentioned a story in its opening statement that it didn’t properly address or support in its presentation of witnesses or evidence. At times during cross-examination I thought that the defense attorney was going to drive home on a point but then he felt short. The prosecutor did a good job but, again, she is young. She did best on cross-examination of the defense’s witnesses and was good at getting out of her witnesses what was necessary. She was especially pointed with the defendant and it briefly made me uncomfortable but she effectively went after holes and inconsistencies in his testimony.
9:30 AM – We arrive on time and are immediately told to leave the courtroom so that an issue can be discussed. We cannot leave the floor but must wait on the other end of the lobby so that we’re nowhere near the courtroom and have no chance of overhearing what’s going. Remember at this point we cannot discuss the case amongst ourselves or with anyone else. O, and the judge’s instrctions on that first day about our out-of-court activities regarding the case also included no researching the law governing the case, any news reports about the case, no blogging, tweeting, facebooking about the specifics of the case, and no going by the addresses mentioned or the scene of the arrest (who would bother to do this, I wonder?!).
Appx. 9:40/45 AM – We are recalled to the courtroom and the prosecution begins its closing argument. She uses a power point presentation to show the elements of the crime and how the evidence presented shows that those elements have been met. The defense is next and he’s rambling a tad more than at the opening. As with opening statement, these presentations by the attorneys are not evidence. It’s just a summation of their theories of the case with the request that we find the defendant either guilty or not guilty.
Appx. 10 AM – The jury is charged. This means that the judge reads us instructions about how we are to consider evidence, a reminder that the burden of proof for the prosecution is beyond a reasonable doubt, how to consider witness testimony and credibility, and, of course, the charges and elements of the crime. The charges have changed from when they were first read on Day 1 but we’re instructed not to speculate about why this is and not to let this factor into our decision-making. Because this is a criminal trial a unanimous verdict is required. A copy of the jury instructions will be provided to each juror along with all the items that have been admitted into evidence (there are some items that have been introduced at trial and marked as exhibits but not admitted into evidence). We have to leave all electronic communications equipment (from cellphones to laptops) in the courtroom where the judge’s law clerk will remain for our entire deliberations. She will also be available should we have any questions for the judge about the law or evidence; those questions must be written. A foreperson is chosen (really by virtue of where she was sitting); she is required to mark the verdict sheet for each charge and to sign. The 13th juror – the alternate – is dismissed; he’s no longer needed because none of the 12 has been excused. The composition of the jury is: 2 southeast Asian men, the Black American man, a Latina, 2 white men, 4 white women (one originally from Hungary), an Asian woman (I think Filipino), and myself.
Appx. 10:15 AM – We begin deliberations. Though the foreperson isn’t required to she does take a lead in the deliberations. The other lawyer on the jury also takes the lead and I’m asked questions as well. However, there are 9 other people in the room so we far from dominated the proceedings. We had a question for the judge so wrote it down, knocked on the door (we were locked in a room…2 bathrooms were available to only us) and handed it to the law clerk. What was clear to me is that much of the jury felt bad for the defendant. The man made some poor choices, and the evidence introduced in conjunction with his testimony showed this clearly. The thing is, leniency is not the province of the jury; that’s for the judge to consider at sentencing. Though the defendant didn’t physically take the items (here motorcycles) evidence was introduced, and not really controverted, that he probably knew that the motorcycles were stolen that is sufficient under Maryland law to show intent to deprive someone else of his property. Nevertheless, we went back and forth in our deliberations. Everyone wanted to ensure that we got it right though at the outset there were at least 2 people more gungho about giving a guilty verdict. We discussed the evidence and examined evidence (especially cell phone records and the statement the defendant gave to the police). It was a while before we heard from the judge but when we did it was right before lunch, which turned out to be on the county. We were escorted by the law clerk to the cafeteria. The judge was explicit that we were to sit together – either at one table or split up but with no other persons – and, of course, were not to talk to each other about the case.
12:30 PM – 1:30 PM – We broke for lunch.
Appx 2:30/40 PM – We had finally decided on a verdict. We knocked on the door to alert the law clerk. I for one had some trouble with the 3rd and 4th charges and said as much. I got the input of fellow jurors and spent some time blocking them out and rereading the jurys instructions especially the parts about possession. Interestingly once the foreperson had marked the sheet there was quiet in the room for a few minutes. For myself, I realized that I just participated in sending a man to prison though at the time I did not know for how long. Though I know that I had done my best according to the requirements of being a juror and closely following the law, I couldn’t help but still feel bad for the defendant. His life as he knew it was surely over and whatever positive changes that he says he was trying to make were irreversibly altered. The silence was broken by my colleague who mentioned something about his children…soon most of just joined in sharing information about or families and childhoods. But an undercurrent of something – sadness? finality? resignation? – hung around. We returned to the courtroom and were asked if we had arrived at a verdict. We responded that we had. The foreperson stood and read the verdict sheet. We’d found the defendant guilty on all charges.
My Overall impressions…
The defendant was black. This bothered the crap out of me. Why? Why? Why? Why? I never felt like doing what Paul Butler advocates (jury nullification) but damnit man! He is a 40 year old man who should, simply, have known better. He has a young child. Like I’ve said above, I pitied him and wanted to believe his testimony and that he was not involved in this theft business but his behaviour, the evidence, and the law compelled me to vote otherwise. But the look on his face and his body language as the verdict was read is an image that will stay with me for the rest of my life. He slumped, his hand covered his face, and he looked ever so defeated. I felt bad for him all over again and wanted to shake him and say what the hell were you doing!! I along with 2 other jurors spoke to the defense team after – they approached at the elevator. We were now allowed to talk to them since the verdict had been delivered. Our first question was about this damned Pooch (yes, someone nicknamed Pooch was at the center of the defense’s theory of the case). “Where the hell was Pooch?” the Black American man asked. Then we asked why they had not hammered home on a few issues such as the defendant’s movements on the night that he was arrested, why had they put that friend on the stand (not the older gentleman, the other witness), and talked about the difficulty we had with some of the defendant’s actions (e.g. having a photo on his cell phone of one of the stolen motorcycles, which he says was for insurance purposes, yet leaving his trailer open & accessible and allowing the bike to be stored there when he claims that over $20,000 worth of tools was being stored in the trailer). The cell phone records – showing calls between the defendant and Pooch around the time of the thefts – and the call from Pooch while the defendant was under arrest where Pooch advises the defendant to remove the battery so that the motorcycle’s GPS could be disabled were particularly damning. And the prosecutor, despite my quibbles, did her job in proving her case beyond a reasonable doubt. It was then that I learned that he was facing 8 – 15 years for each of the four charges. I asked the attorney if he expected the sentence to run concurrently or consecutively; the expectation is a concurrent sentence. This means that he’ll be serving time for all 4 at the same time versus serving an individual sentence for each. There is also the possibility of parole. This is what really hit because I know how much can be done and accomplished in 8 years…I wonder about the defendant’s choices and at which point he could have chosen otherwise and where he’d have ended up. Based on the testimony I spotted at least 3 instances where he could have chosen to not do something and likely would not have ended up at trial and now in prison.
Here’s what I’ll pass along though (and this is not legal advice just my view based on observations and this experience): if ever you are arrested or in police custody ASK FOR A LAWYER AND SHUT UP. In this country you have a right to remain silent and a right to attorney. Use them. Giving your story quickly may not help you and doesn’t mean that you’ll be released or exonerated at trial. These rights are meant to protect your blasted baxide. Invoke them. This does not mean that you’re guilty or have anything to hide. It means that you’re now being involved in and faced with a system that you have no hope of navigating without help. Another thing is that I think all police interrogations and arrestee’s statements should be videotaped or otherwise recorded. There is the option for that in Maryland but it’s not the arrestee’s choice; it’s at the police’s discretion. In this case the defendant’s statement was written out by a detective as the defendant spoke. However, the defendant had the opportunity to read the statement and make corrections before agreeing that this statement reflected his answers. He signed each page as required. I don’t think that the police made things up but I do think that at 4 AM after being up for 24 hours doing construction work and traveling that it was imprudent of the defendant to not request an attorney and then give a statement to the police.
I enjoyed the overall experience – it was efficient and I appreciate that because I hate wasting my time. And I won’t be called for another 3 years at least (in actuality not for the next 7 to 10 years). But I do not like in any way, shape, or form the feeling of sending a man to prison. I know that I voted correctly but that does little to salve the empty feeling. I am proud to have fulfilled my civic duty but it feels hollow somehow.
Years ago and before law school a friend’s friend was comforting her friend (a judge in Jamaica) who had just sentenced a defendant. The judge was visibly upset as she was comforted by her friend with soothing words over lunch. I asked the comforting friend why the judge was upset; she had done her job and wasn’t that the bottom line? The friend responded that even so, it wasn’t that easy or cut and dry…. Now I understand.