Friday, January 26, 2007

Jury Duty

“too stupid to avoid jury duty.”

Ever hear that? Or something like that? I did. I got a jury summons. I’d been summoned before but never made it past the questionnaire stage. Most times I was excused simply for being in the service and not available.

Me and about 180 of my friends and neighbors showed up and turned in our summons to a bailiff who led us to assigned seats. After a couple of hours most of us were assigned to one of two large pools. A deputy took my group to the courthouse. We were again placed in assigned seats.

The prosecutor explained that we were to undergo the voir dire process in order to determine who the final twelve would be.

It took two hours of generic questions such as, “Can you honestly be fair and impartial if the defendant doesn’t take the stand”? Another question asked if we could consider the possibility of a child lying or a police officer lying. As the reality set in that this was a case of aggravated sexual assault on a small child the jury pool began to talk. A lot of folks suddenly decided that they could not be impartial. Many claimed that they had knowledge of molestation and simply couldn’t possibly give the defendant a fair trial.

To make the long story short we were allowed to take a break while at least half of the seventy folks spoke privately with the judge.

After the break, they called twelve names. I was the sixth name. I have no idea how they decided on me. We sat in the infamous jury box and those left in the benches were dismissed. We were immediately sworn in, and the trial began.

It kind of hit hard. Five minutes before I was just someone who was getting irritated at the slow grind of the system. Then bam, we are the ones trying to judge if a man had raped and sodomized his eight year old daughter.

Suddenly I was one of those people, you know, the ones too stupid to avoid jury duty.

Folks, let me tell you, it aint like the TV shows. The trial is butt numbingly boring. It is slow grinding, methodical, and very comprehensive. On TV, the cop is simply asked “are you a cop”. Here, there were no less than ten questions to the officer. Everything from is he a cop, to how long he’s been a cop, to include summaries of his training. Trust me, the jury was convinced that this guy was a true blue man in blue. We went thru this for every expert. Experts included the nurses and child protective services folks as well as the guy who did the DNA analysis.

We heard about how the dad beat the mom. We heard about how the mom did cocaine with the dads mom. And we heard about “the incident”. I’ve seen and heard some pretty ugly stuff. But the photos of the eight year old girls private parts (magnified to show the lacerations, tearing, and abrasions) are something I won’t forget. The child's testimony was wooden. She was very calm. Way too calm for a child of ten discussing a rape at age eight. When told to point out the rapist, some of that calm faded and a little girl of ten quietly asked if she had to look at him.

The defense tried to minimize her injuries by saying that they were minute. They tried to further minimize them by saying that the girl had played at a party the next day. She had played. But as soon as she slid down a slide, she stopped due to the pain. Finally the defense tried to convince us that the mom had caused the injuries by performing her own examination of the child before the ER exam. The defense further implied that she (the Mom) had managed an elaborate deception that stood up to two years of investigation and counseling. Trust me, Mom wasn't a winner. There wasn't any way she could maintain the deception.

After the prosecution and defense had rested the judge read the charges (jury instructions) to us. We were removed to the jury room to deliberate. Our first order of business was to select a foreman. As I mentioned it, a young lady looked at me and said, “why don’t you do it”? Since no one objected, I agreed to it.

Bottom line was that we deliberated for about an hour or two. We went thru all the direct evidence that demonstrated graphically that the child had been penetrated. We looked for holes in the time-line and the child's testimony. We looked at the defense assertion of a possible conspiracy. In short we tried to find anything that would allow for a reasonable doubt. There simply wasn’t anything. One person was undecided and he openly said he wanted to do it (discussion) again. We had to be sure that we didn’t get it wrong. So each juror explained the process they used to determine guilt. In my case it was based on a military JAG manual investigation. My decision had to be based on opinions. My opinion had to point directly to a fact or facts proven in court and admitted to evidence. It worked for me.

In the end after three days of trial we found him guilty of two counts of aggravated sexual assault on a minor under fourteen.

Under Texas law the accused must elect who will impose punishment (the Judge or the Jury) if he or she is found guilty. We had already known that he’d selected the jury to impose any possible punishment. We were again given written instructions by the Judge.

In short, the incarceration could be 15-99 years or life per offense. Additionally we could impose a $10,000 fine per offense. We were advised that by law he would serve half of the sentence or 30 years whichever was less before parole could be considered.

During the penalty phase we learned of his prior convictions (one felony assault, and five misdemeanors) that didn’t come out in the trial phase. We also learned that he had been in and out of varying degrees of incarceration since 1997. His family came forth and offered that he was a good, kind, loving father. The prosecutor made each member of the family look at the photos and asked each if they would trust their children to him now. All of them said “No”. The penalty phase lasted about an hour.

It took almost twenty minutes to assign him to two life sentences and a $20,000 fine.

It felt really strange to actually sign the original court documents on behalf of the jury to place the two guilty verdicts and then the sentences in the official record. Unlike TV I didn’t get to stand and intone that “We the jury” etc etc. I simply stated for the record (when asked) that yes, the jury had completed deliberations and the result was unanimous. Then I handed the forms to the bailiff to in turn hand to the judge. As the judge read each document, the accused was immobile and didn’t meet anyone's eyes. It was strange to hear the judge pronounce my name at the end of each statement "Jury Foreman".

I can honestly say that the trial was educational and it both supported and refuted some opinions I hold/held on the criminal justice system. No one on the jury wanted to be there, and we all tried very hard to make sure that the defendant wasn’t unfairly tried.

After we were released from service, the prosecutor came over to thank us. Then we learned that this guy was a suspect in two other sexual assault cases. But there was a lack of enough evidence to go to trial.

I think we got it right. If you ever go to trial I hope you get people who were “too stupid to get out of jury duty”.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, a much more serious case than the Jury duty I served. Must have been tough to hear the evidence and testimonials. I served duty on a domestic violence case. I was surprised I was picked because my dad had been an abusive drunk, but I was simply honest about it, and figured I could still be fair if I was picked. The officer who had collected report and evidence had not done the paperwork correctly, been kinda sloppy, and barely remembered the case. Both the defendant and the accused seemed like low-lives to be frank, but we the jury took our role seriously, it was mostly a he said/she said, be we did decide guilty on an intimidation, we thought the guy was probably guilty on the assault charge too but there was a reasonable doubt, because the police officer had been sloppy.

    The experience was certainly educational if a bit dull. I will say the process did seem pretty well designed to be as fair as possible. I do agree it is good to be "too stupid to get out of jury duty".

    M. Laridon