Dispensing Justice for Ten Dollars a Day

Last week, I was called upon to fulfill my job as a citizen and report for Jury Duty.  Basically, you get called to a courthouse and do a lot of sitting around.  Then, a group of 45 or so of you get corralled like cattle into a courtroom.  You get to answer answer awesome questions like:

Do you have any religious objections to alcohol? or

Does anyone here NOT believe in the US system of Government?

Once you’ve answered the questions, then the attorneys get to dismiss people they think might not be good to their case.  Those of us who seem fine to both the prosecution and defense get picked to be on a Jury.

I’ve actually been called quite a few times, but never actually picked.  Well last week was my lucky week.  I was part of the twelve (and two alternates) who were chosen to choose the fate of a man who was up for felony aggravated battery.

The defendant had struck a man with a large plastic BB gun at 2AM in the parking lot of a taco joint.  When it broke, he then grabbed a baseball bat.  Luckily for the person who was struck (and the defendant) there was an officer that saw him strike a victim the first time, and got there in time to keep him from striking with the bat.

The officer saw the defendant strike the victim.  Everyone on both sides agreed that happened.  They also agree it was in public.  The thing they didn’t agree on was whether or not it was self-defense.  Did the defendant feel threatened enough to have to defend himself? If we had even a shadow of a doubt whether it was self-defense or not, we had to proclaim him innocent.

Now the defendant was too drunk to drive (his fiance drove) and was known for starting fights when drunk (his fiance’s words.)  The victim did NOT want to testify and had to be subpoenaed.  The victim never struck the defendant, and also did not speak English.  What the victim did do is stop the car, get out, and confront the drunk guy.  For many of our jurors, that act of stopping the car (and possibly blocking the defendant in) and then coming around the car meant the defendant could have gotten scared enough to grab the first thing he could get his hands on and defend himself.  He was found by us, a jury of his peers, to be not guilty.

I had to be convinced. I think this guy instigated the whole thing and was acting tough and as soon as someone got back in his face he hit him.  But, I had to feel that beyond a reasonable doubt that he didn’t feel threatened to act in self-defense.  Eventually, as one of the only dissenters, I caved, because there was the wee bit of doubt.

There were lots of screwed up things in everyone’s testimony and no one was really believable.  The original officer who witnessed the crime that night was actually off duty, so rather than pay him overtime they brought in another officer to process the scene.  That officer basically skated through the investigation and only wrote a one page report.  The report didn’t have key info in it that could have been bad for the defendant and good for the prosecution.

Also, through testimony the defendant said he only had five or six beers and stopped drinking at 10PM.  So some folks thought he might be fairly sober at 2AM and just had the fiance drive to be safe.  Also they say he was really remorseful in the police car and very apologetic.

During your Jury Duty, you cannot research the case outside the courtroom, and you can only listen to the testimony. You are also not allowed to talk about it with anyone including other jurors.   I followed the rules.  But after the case was over and this man was set free, I did some research and found some news articles.  The article from the night in question had his mug shot.  He looked completely plastered and he was laughing and defiant.  He didn’t seem remorseful and didn’t look the least bit sober.  If we had been shown the mug shot, it’s possible folks might have had another opinion.

Despite my misgivings, I really like that it takes a unanimous vote of 12 people to convict someone in this country.  I also like that people in the jury are really supposed to have not heard anything about the case and not have any knowledge of the situation.  I think it’s a decent system, and it was nice to see it from the inside.  Our case was fairly laughable, and there were so many mistakes that we had to proclaim the defendant not guilty.  That said, I’m really glad that I didn’t end up on a trial that was more serious or deadly.  I can sleep at night with this decision, I think a more serious case would be much harder to put behind me.

But I leave you with words of advice.  If it’s 2AM, and you really want tacos, go to bed, you’re drunk.