Saturday, October 15, 2005

I, The Jury

there was a body. there was medical evidence. the dead man died of gunshot wounds. he didn't shoot himself. there was a trial. there was a defendant. there were witnesses. there was a jury. i was on it. it was 1966 in oakland, ca. i was a computer programmer in an era where that, at least at kaiser aluminum, was an office job requiring coat and tie for men. so i showed up for jury duty in a suit and tie and goatee. i was dumbfounded but excited that i was approved for jury duty, the standard jury of twelve of the defendant's peers. well kinda. the defendant was, i think, seventeen, so none of the adults on the jury was really his peer. some men, some women, some white, some black. no overwhelmingly obvious leaders. we listened to a week of testimony elicited by the prosecutor. there was no murder weapon. none of the witnesses actually saw the defendant fire a gun, or even have one. the most damning evidence, a claim that the defendant admitted the crime, came from another young man, who allowed as how he was getting a break on his current sentence for testifying, and who shuffled nervously while refusing to look at his erstwhile friend, the defendant.

the crime took place in a poor neighborhood. the victim may have been intending to enter a local business identified by witnesses as a place of prostitution. he was not a local. the defendant was one of a group of five or six young men present at the scene. there was conflicting testimony about how close the young men were to the victim and who ran where when shots were fired. there was an irony of names. the prosecuting attorney was a black man named white, while the defending attorney was a white man named black. there were comic moments. the prosecuting da, while asking a witness why anyone would break into parked cars looking for money, seemed shocked when informed that boosting cars was a regular paying job. a younger kid, testifying about a fire in an abandoned building down the block from the crime scene in response to questions establishing a timeline, gave the da a look as if to say "what planet do you live on?" when asked why he didn't turn in a fire alarm. even the jury knew that the fire department doesn't go to that neighborhood much.

so we filed into the jury room not having a clue about our fellows. i did not see how i could convict someone on the evidence presented. we shuffled around, sat, talked a bit, and elected a foreman. a strange ritual. as we discussed the case it became clear that no one was overwhelmed by the evidence for conviction. we all agreed that a crime had been committed and that it was possible that the defendant had done it. some favored conviction because it was a terrible crime and someone was responsible. all were angry at being asked to send a person to jail for murder on such weak evidence. we voted. the minority wanted a conviction. the majority took turns asking about certainty and reasonable doubt. none of the minority could stand and say "yes, i believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that the evidence proves the guilt of this defendant." we voted some more. after a while, not overnight, as i recall, the vote was unanimous for acquittal. we asked each other "are you ok with this?" all said yes. the minority regretted that we could not convict someone for the crime, but agreed that the evidence did not warrant convicting this particular defendant.

i was most impressed with my fellow jurors. they listened carefully to the judge's instructions and accepted their responsibility soberly. we were a serious lot. that was long ago. i don't know what jury duty is like today. i hope that people take it as seriously now as then, in my small experience. it was, in many ways, easy for me. my employer paid my regular salary. i could drive to the courthouse and was given a pass for parking, in a garage. i answered truthfully when i said i could consider a death penalty, but the meager evidence undercut any possibility that i would actually be asked to do so.

i also served on a jury in a civil trial while on call back then. the state had taken some real estate, part of a parcel, for a freeway interchange, and, in its majesty, awarded the owner a pittance for some very valuable land. we of the jury found both sides biased and settled somewhere in the middle. the owner's bias was understandable. the extemely parsimonious appraisal by state employees was less explicable.

jury duty is not easy, for many reasons. there is a monumental waste of time. you go, you wait, you're called, or not called. come back tomorrow, or call for a recording at 7 AM to find out if you're called. wait all day to be dismissed. many people don't get paid their regular wages when they do jury duty. self-employed people certainly don't. then there is the actual doing of it. judging someone. technically, deciding if the evidence supports conviction, or perhaps which side is lying, the most. perhaps sending someone to jail. perhaps not sending someone to jail who should have gone.

jury duty is fodder for humor. but if we won't do it who will? i am a straight arrow about voting, jury duty, and paying taxes. whatever problems our legal system has will not, in my opinion, be solved or ameliorated by increasing numbers of us opting out of jury duty. similarly, democracy doesn't work so well when so few of us vote. taxes generate more humor than jury duty, but we all like the roads, the fire department is pretty cool, and cops are nice to have. so i urge you all to step up and judge your neighbors. seriously. jury duty. do it.

No comments:

Post a Comment