Saturday, August 24, 2013

My day in court, cont.

I was on a jury in a criminal trial  this past week. We heard testimony on Tuesday and Wednesday and deliberated Thursday and Friday.  We ended up a hung jury, stuck at 10-2.  I felt that the process worked as it should and everyone comported themselves well -- but at the end, tempers frayed, several people in the majority expressed shame about not being able to come to a verdict, and I seemed to be the only one who felt good about the process and glad to have been there.

In a post I wrote last week during jury selection, I called jury duty the civilized face of a brutal criminal justice system. Ditto the court proceeding as a whole. Leave aside biased law enforcement, Draconian sentencing guidelines and brutal prison conditions -- not to mention environments of concentrated poverty and lack of opportunity -- and justice may happen in the court room, viewed alone. (Except for several strains of cancer the patient is healthy.) Propriety was observed by all parties, defense counsel was competent, the judge kept good control of the proceedings, the jury clearly understood its charge and duties, no one seemed in the grip of any bias or animus, and deliberation for the most part stayed on point and orderly.

Essex County in New Jersey spans Newark, a very poor city; Millburn, a true outpost of Richistan, USA; some very poor inner ring suburbs, and suburbs with varying mixes of rich, poor and middle.  The voir dire reflected that mix, minus the extremes. Perhaps it was a cross section of the American middle class as it's devolved.

There were no workers in manufacturing per se, though there were a couple of employees of companies engaged in some form of manufacturing. There were teachers, workers in government bureaucracies, customer reps, sales reps, and a smattering of professionals. Almost everyone called was employed -- though several mentioned adult children who were not employed. There was one woman with a ninth grade education; everyone else was at least a high school graduate. There were people with associate degrees, four-year degrees, and professional degrees.  On the far ends of the spectrum, a lot of professionals were struck, and I suppose a lot of male residents of Newark and the inner ring suburbs are ineligible because of criminal records. Below are the professions I noted. Both sides struck at least ten people who were seated in the jury box, and most of those noted below were not on the jury:

clerk in unemployment office
college student/sales rep
civil engineer
ice cream (machine?) technician
administrative assistant (2 or 3)
retired teacher
elementary school teacher
educational administrator
educational aide
prison warden
restaurant chain owner
marketing manager, energy company
healthcare analyst, research firm
building manager
freelance print journalist
TV journalist

For some reason, a lot of professionals were concentrated at the end (i.e., called last), and most were struck, though we had at least two and I think three advanced degrees on the jury, and I think 4-6 who had completed college.  We were four male, eight female (though the two alternates, selected randomly from the empaneled, were also male), five white, four black, two Hispanic and one Asian.

This post is going to be (has been) more boring than it could be, because I don't want the case identifiable by details provided here, though it's now legally permissible to describe it freely.  It was a burglary, with the suspect nabbed in his own backyard within a half hour of the event -- with some of the stolen belongings strewed around his yard.  Sounds pretty open and shut, doesn't it?  The only possible explanation other than guilt was the cops planting evidence on the first suspect they grabbed -- and no one expressed any belief in that possibility. The prosecution did not focus the case sharply enough on those core facts. I walked into the jury room thinking that stolen items had not been found in the defendant's yard, and that was true of many if not most of us. It was only after a close look in the jury room at pictures entered as evidence, collective reconstruction of what we heard in testimony, and read-backs of selected parts of the testimony, that the facts as alleged came into full focus.

We spent a lot of time in that reconstruction, without direct argument as to verdict. Once it became clear that we were pretty much locked in position at 10-2, people were extremely reluctant to try direct persuasion on each other. There was some confusion as to the distinction, expressed clearly in the judge's instructions, between trying to pressure another juror and trying to persuade that person as to the evidence. I tried to get people past this squeamishness, suggesting that trying to persuade each other was the heart of our job, the only way forward, the only alternative to running out the clock until the judge would accept a hung jury.  Unfortunately, in the end, the distinction between pressure and persuasion was breached, as the minority felt "harassed," and some in the majority felt that they were impervious to reason.

In the early going in the jury room, I felt humbled by how much better some people recollected some parts of the testimony than I did.  To my wife, I am a running joke (30+ years) in my inability to follow plots unfolding in real time, in movies and plays.  My concentration is intense but inconsistent; my mind wanders, I process slowly, and my short-term memory is poor. Once I had reconstructed the essentials, though -- by collective recollection, examination of the evidence, and read-backs of the testimony -- I felt quite confident in my analytical grip not only of the evidence (which, honestly, was pretty simple) but of the way other people were viewing it, their insights and blind spots. I felt kind of emotionally aligned with the holdouts, and I tried hard to construct and debunk alternative scenarios.  I also tried to broker a deal, as there were multiple charges, and made some headway. But deadlock on whether there was reasonable doubt that the defendant was the burglar was irreducible.

It was too bad that there was no warmth among the jurors at the end.  I thought everyone acted in good faith. By the end, not everyone thought so.  Really, though, that's okay too. You get twelve people in a room, and what happens happens.  All were qualified to be jurors. There was no one who didn't understand the proceedings, know the facts as they were alleged, and assess the credibility of all who testified or argued.  Everyone discharged their duty. In this trial, I thought, the system worked as designed.

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