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I, the jury

October 28th, 2011

I just spent the past two days of my life doing jury duty – something that I have never done in my lifetime.

Serving on the jury was actually quite rewarding. You know the good feeling you get after you vote, where you realize you did your duty as a citizen and you think about how awesome our country and system are (even if you are the cynical type who otherwise thinks everything is gone to shit?) I felt that good feeling – I was an important part of making our justice system work, making sure a fair trial happened and justice was done as best as we can. It sounds unremarkable, but for 99% of human history and in much of the word even today, that doesn’t happen, but when things are working, it does here, and you and me are a big reason why.

The jury itself was interesting. We were 12 strangers, but together in a very intimate environment. I joked it was kind of like air travel – you are in a small space with total strangers and you can’t use your cell phone! During the two days we mostly made small talk (the same kind you’d make with folks in an airport) – we were not allowed to discuss the case until deliberations, and once those started we pretty much stuck to business. Everyone was friendly and willing to debate and discuss in an open and respectful manner – there were no “angry men” or serious arguments; it was very collaborative. Demographically, there were more retired folks then I would have expected based on random chance, and the male/female split was 7/5.

The actual mechanics of how the case is run and how the courtroom works is surprisingly casual and almost banal – I wasn’t quite expecting the crisp severity and scintillating drama of Law and Order, but even so, it was interesting how, well, ordinary everyone was. The lawyers for both sides spent a lot of time looking through their papers between questions, and everyone was polite and laid back. There were no dramatic objections (in fact, objections were discussed between counsels in whispers in front of the bench, all the better to prevent the jury from hearing anything we shouldn’t), the witness examinations and crosses were very mellow, and even in the closing remarks there wasn’t much Sam Watterson channeling Clarence Darrow. The judge kept things moving, but in the relaxed way of an experienced teacher interacting with students while moving things along in a classroom.

The judge made it very clear that we were only permitted to consider the evidence presented in the courtroom as jurors. We were not to talk about the case with anyone outside the jury, and we were not allowed to do any independent research (including electronic) while the case was underway. Specific mention was made of 21st century distractions like Facebook, Twitter and blogs (the judge even joked that we couldn’t tell anyone on MySpace, but that nobody used MySpace anymore!). She also noted that phones needed to be off while in the courtroom. Mentally, I kind of thought of this like some kind of “cone of ignorance” – everything we needed to know would be in court, it was the job of the two sides to give us what we needed to make our decision – we are not detectives. I understood all of this intellectually, but it was still a big responsibility – this was someone’s life that would change based on what we decided.

So, the actual case (and now that the trial is over, this is all public record and we are permitted to discuss it and anything about the deliberations).

Essentially, the defendant (technically called the respondent because he was under 18 when the crime occurred) cut off another guy in traffic while making a turn onto South Iowa Street from 23rd. The guy who was cut off made his displeasure known, via the usual yelling and bird-flipping, and the guy who cut him off responded in kind. The victim tailgated the first guy on down Iowa Street, and they got into it, just like two guys with more testosterone then common sense are wont to do. So, two guys acting like jerks. However, it got very serious when the first guy (the one who originally did the cutting off) brandished a gun – basically held it up to let the other guy know he had it (without actually pointing it at him). At that point, the second guy (the victim) fell back and called 911, while continuing to follow the first guy at a greater distance. They continued down into rural Douglas County, and the sheriffs eventually pulled over the assailant.

There were two charges, making a criminal threat (and I am paraphrasing, I don’t recall the exact title of that charge), and aggravated assault.

We had the following pieces of physical evidence made available to us (“published to the jury” in the parlance of the court)

  • The tape of the 911 call
  • A map upon which both the defendant and victim marked where events occurred.
  • The gun itself (which was a realistic-looking BB gun)
  • A videotape of the police interview with the defendant
  • A videotape of the police interview with the defendant’s sister, who was in the car with him.
  • The written statements of the victim, the defendant, and the defendant’s sister.

    The state called the following witnesses:

  • The victim
  • The defendant’s sister – as a subpoenaed witness (she didn’t want to testify against her brother)
  • Three police officers; the sheriff who made the initial stop and the two officers who did the interviews

    The defense only called one witness, the defendant himself (he didn’t have to testify, but chose to).

    The general outline of what occurred wasn’t really questioned by either side, but there were some inconsistencies in the various details that made it less then an open-and-shut case.

    I am not going to give a play-by-play of the trial or deliberations, but the things we paid attention to and ended up being important included issues like:

  • How was the gun actually held and displayed
  • Did the victim have “reasonable” fear of “imminent bodily harm”
  • Was there any claim to self-defense by the defendant
  • What was the relative position of the two vehicles during the back and forth down Iowa Street, and what could be seen from where?
  • Did the defendant flash the gun the get the victim to ‘back off’ from the continuing tailgating/road rage or did he mean to actually attack with it.

    We also looked at the written statements that the parties provided to the police. It ended up that of all the people, the defendant’s sister seemed to be the most reliable witness.

    After the closing arguments, we deliberated for about four hours. The bailiff made our lives as jurors easier by baking us brownies (yes!) and bringing in lunch from Free State while we deliberated.

    We found the defendant guilty of the lesser charge of making a criminal threat, but not guilty of the assault charge – primarily because assault required the the threat of imminent bodily harm, which we felt was not proved.

    I am glad that I had this experience. It was just two days of my life, during a relatively slow time at work. If it had been two weeks during a crunch time, I might not be as sanguine, but regardless, I felt honored to do my part as a citizen, and proud that I did my service diligently and responsibly. There’s not much that our society or our government really asks of citizens any more. We don’t have t vote, we don’t have to join the army, and don’t get me started on taxes – but serving on a jury really helps the system work – and it did work. This was real life; although the crime was relatively minor, it affected peoples’ lives on both sides, and involved everyone from the 911 dispatcher who answered the call to the cops who did their job investigating and the district attorneys, the judges, their clerks and assistants, and even the defense attorney who did her job representing her client as best she could, making the state prove its case. Everyone did their jobs. All you have to do is look around the world and look in history books to see that although we take this for granted, how rare this is in human history.

    Fundamentally, the jury fundamentally helps our legal system work in a fair way, is a check on the power of the state, helps see justice done, and I was happy to have been able to do my part.

    And, for Google’s sake, here’s some information about serving on a jury in Douglas County Kansas that isn’t covered by the county’s FAQ

    1. Yes, you can bring a book or crossword puzzle or whatnot to do while you wait. Don’t count on using your phone for entertainment or to pass the time; frequently it must be off, but you can always read a book during breaks or while waiting (although obviously not while in the courtroom).

    2. Casual dress is fine. By that, I mean even a nice pair of jeans and a collared shirt. You don’t need a suit or even Dockers (although nothing’s stopping you from looking nice!) Nothing torn or ripped, no shorts, and no T-shirts or shirts with writing on them.

    3. Cell coverage in the judicial center sucks. AT&T simply didn’t work at all anywhere inside the building. So even when you can use your phone, don’t count on it working. However, there is a Knology hot spot in the building, so during breaks when you are allowed to use your phone, you can get online this way.

    4. Our judge was pretty savvy and actually mentioned this during her instructions, but to be clear, you just can’t talk about the case or search for information about it on the internet during the trial. For those (like me) addicted to social media, that means no Tweeting or Facebook or anything. This seems obvious, but a lot of us are so used to casually mentioning things that it would be easy to slip up if you didn’t make a specific effort not to. You are allowed to say you’ve been called for jury duty, but that’s it – you can’t mention what trial you are involved in or any details. I checked in to the Judicial Center on Foursquare but never became the Mayor (Chief Justice?)

    5. The court day ends around five PM – it won’t go any later; and it starts whenever the judge says, anywhere from between 9 and 10. There are relatively frequent recesses, so you’ll have a chance to stretch and get water. On the day we deliberated, they brought us lunch, but on the trial day, we got an hour and a half to get lunch on our own. They give you temporary employee badges so you can get in and out of the building without going through the metal detector in the front.

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