For the past three days, I had the privilege of serving on a jury. I debated with myself as to whether or not I should blog about this issue, but I think it is important for me to comment about this topic in light of today’s political climate. It is so easy to be cynical of the government with the gridlock we are experiencing in Congress and of the justice system with the abuses we are seeing from citizens’ video cameras. Well, for the last three days I saw the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution in action and felt so fortunate to be able to participate in the process. It doesn’t mean that I believe that the system is always perfect and that individuals always get the justice they deserved. But when you know that there are countries in this world where is no justice system and individuals get killed for committing misdemeanors, you really feel lucky to live in a country where there is due process.
Most people aren’t excited to get the jury summons in the mail and I was no different. I had to ask a colleague to fill-in for me and I was going to miss at least a day of pay. My feelings began to change once I got into the jury room and the official started to arrange the jury pool into groups to be interviewed for selection. Since I was “Number 6” in my group, I had the sneaking suspicion that I would be one of the individuals that would be questioned first in the jury box. After the presiding judge discussed how important it is to be a juror and what a privilege it is to serve, I wanted to be chosen. The prosecutor and the attorneys for the defendant did a very good job with their selection. The jurors varied in age, occupations, economic status, ethnicities and sexual orientation. Some were parents of young children or children with special needs. One was a caretaker of an elderly parent. Another had lost a sibling at a very young age in a tragic accident. Everyone in varying degrees was going to be inconvenienced in some fashion, but everyone seemed very willing to participate in this very important process.
I was just a bit surprised when the judge explained the gross misdemeanor case to us. The defendant, a middle-aged, man who spoke with a slight accent, had allegedly damaged a black SUV vehicle with a foreign object, making deep scratches along the passenger side of the vehicle and causing $1,200 in repairs. My first thought was why wasn’t a plea deal done? I can’t even imagine the cost of having two defense attorneys and the cost to the court/tax payers! It soon became apparent that the defendant wanted his day in court, which is the right of every American citizen. Since he was on disability and couldn’t afford the cost of an attorney, he was appointed two public defenders, which is also his right.
The defendant, who had open heart surgery two months prior, parked his car next to the black SUV at a Trader Joe’s parking lot. Some of the parking stalls were blocked off as they were recently repaved. He was upset that the owner of the SUV did a bad job of parking and he had to squeeze out of his car. The defendant was so upset that he motioned to a 73-year-old woman to come over and look at the poor parking job. She goes over and basically shrugs her shoulders, because there wasn’t anything she could do and left. A few moments later, the woman hears the distinct sound of the scratching of metal. She turns around and can see the man making large hand movements by the SUV. The lady can see that he has an object in his hand and asks, “What are you doing?” The defendant tells her “to f… off,” so she leaves , but manages to get the license plate number of defendant with the help of another stranger. The witness and the stranger proceed to the store and to speak to the manager about the incident. That’s the case in a nutshell.
The first thing we did in the deliberation room was to take a vote—the result was 10 “guilty”, 2 “not guilty.” One of the jurors, who voted “not guilty,” was a naturalized citizen and had a friend who was incarcerated for twenty years for a crime he did not commit and was later released. The juror was justifiably sensitive, because of his friend who was wrongfully imprisoned. In a calm manner, we discussed the testimony and the credibility of both the defendant and the witness. Surprisingly, we probably would have had a unanimous verdict of “not guilty,” had the defendant not testified. It was his numerous inconsistencies in his testimony, false accusations of racism by the witness and police officer and repeated references to his heart condition that chipped away at his credibility. The witness, on the other hand, was consistent in the critical details of her testimony and admitted when she was unsure of a detail. She did not know the defendant or the car owner, but got involved, because it was the right thing to do. In the end, the jury gave the unanimous verdict of “guilty.” None of us were happy about giving that verdict, but the prosecutor had proven her case beyond a reasonable doubt.
I was fortunate to have a very positive experience of being a juror and to see Sixth Amendment in action. This case should have been pleaded out and never have gone to trial, but it does show that every defendant has the right to have a trial by your peers no matter how small or big and no matter how little or much society is impacted by it. I was impressed by the judge who was fair and impartial, the two public defenders who fought hard for their client, the prosecutor who systemically made her case and the bailiff who cheerfully did his job and kept us upbeat. Most of all, I was so impressed with my fellow jurors, who took their responsibility seriously and was so respectful of others opinions.
Final comment: While the bailiff was escorting the defendant to booking, we had the opportunity to speak with the attorneys. At the conclusion of our talk, paramedics entered the courtroom with a gurney. All of our jaws dropped! We were all thinking, “Did our verdict cause the defendant to have a heart attack?” We had no knowledge of his condition, when we were escorted out of the courtroom to get our $120.00 for jury service. As I was leaving the courthouse lobby with another juror, we saw the defendant walking by himself out of the building. Our jaws dropped again!!!