Jury Duty


Wednesday I was summoned to another part of my county to perform my civic duty and report for the dreaded Jury Duty. Jury Duty can be horribly boring, sitting in the Jury room for hours on end, and then perhaps dismissed. Bring a book. I once brought a notepad and wrote my friend a 6 page letter before being dismissed, then went to lunch and then some light shopping. It can be a nice diversion from your regular routine, provided that your company pays you for the time. I wonder if the reason so many people hate it is because they are losing pay or income by being there.

I generally don’t mind Jury Duty. (I feel that Jury Duty has earned the capitalization. I just do.) I like the break from work, I like reading books and writing letters to friends. If called, the process is interesting. But I wasn’t too thrilled about driving in heavy rush hour traffic, and hoped that when I phoned on Tuesday evening, I would be excused. Nope. Please present yourself at 8am, and leave your knitting needles (and other weapons) at home.

Happily, the drive wasn’t too bad on Wednesday morning. It took me about 40 minutes to go 30 miles, which in the scope of things is not too shabby. Then there was the sign in process, which involved answering a fairly detailed questionnaire. Right when we were preparing to watch the boring video about serving your country and what to expect, the deputy came in and called 60 names, and asked us to follow him. The 60 of us who had been called went upstairs to the courtroom, where we heard a bit about the case, and went through the process of voir dire, when the lawyers asked us questions to determine whether they want us to serve on the jury or not. The case was an auto break-in, where the suspect was on parole from serving time for other cases of auto burglary. So the questions tended towards, “if the suspect is proven to be guilty, will you have a problem declaring him guilty?”, and “can you set aside the suspect’s previous convictions and not assume that if he committed the crimes previously, he must have committed this one?” They went through almost 40 jurors this way, and by the end of the day, they had 12 jurors and 1 alternate. I found the process really interesting. I liked hearing the stories of the potential jurors, hearing where they were from and what they did for a living. What experiences they had had in the past that might prejudice them, what excuses they might come up with to try to get out of serving. One younger potential juror said he didn’t believe in the system at all, didn’t think the courts were useful, didn’t believe the police are useful, etc. He works as a security guard. The judge gave him a lecture about our civic duties and so on, and then sent him downstairs to start the entire process over again. (Ha ha!)

If Wednesday was a day of people hoping to get out of their civic duty, Thursday was a day of people who knew this was a serious job, and who were there to do their very best to provide a fair verdict.  It was interesting to me to notice the difference in how people dressed on Wednesday vs. Thursday.  Wednesday was very casual, maybe a sports team shirt, maybe a hat or a hoodie.  Thursday was business casual.  The jurors knew their job, and they dressed the part.

Thursday was opening arguments and the presentation of evidence. The police officer was driving by at 3:30 am, and saw the defendant standing behind the truck (next to a recycling bin) that had been broken into. The officer looked in his rear view mirror and saw the defendant crouching down next to the car. He thought that was strange, so he turned around at the end of the block and returned. Now the defendant was standing on the lawn. When questioned, he said he wasn’t doing anything, but refused to sit on the curb when asked. Then he took off down the street in a sprint. A chase ensued, other officers were called in, he was captured the next street over. He lied about who he was, hoping that they wouldn’t put 2 + 2 together and connect him with the warrant that was out for his arrest, due to him breaking parole.  After he was taken to the police station by the other officers, the original officer came back to the truck, and found that the recycling bin (the only one on the street) had tools in it, and that there were a few more tools on the ground where the officer had seen the suspect crouching.

The crux of the defense was that he did not break into the car, that he was walking down the street on the way to catch a bus, saw the police officer, and hid because he didn’t want to be brought in on parole violation. He ran from the police and lied about his identity for the same reason. No fingerprints were taken of the crime scene, he did not have any of the tools on his person, there’s no hard and fast evidence that he did the crime. We heard from the arresting officer, the people whose tools were (almost) stolen, the defendant, and the defendant’s girlfriend’s daughter. Again, the process was really interesting. The detail was much different than what you see on TV. Excruciating detail on what tools were in the truck, what they were for, blah blah blah. Lawyers objecting, judge overruling objections, differing and conflicting explanations for the same time frame. That was Thursday.

Friday we heard jury instruction, then closing arguments. We were reminded again that the burden of proof is on the prosecution. That the defendant is innocent until proven guilty. That we must not consider the possible punishment and consequences of our decision while determining guilt or innocence. That circumstantial evidence is admissible, and should be considered if reasonable. The bit that finally made the difference for us was this:

224. Circumstantial Evidence: Sufficiency of Evidence

Before you may rely on circumstantial evidence to conclude that a fact necessary to find the defendant guilty has been proved, you must be convinced that the People have proved each fact essential to that conclusion beyond a reasonable doubt.

Also, before you may rely on circumstantial evidence to find the defendant guilty, you must be convinced that the only reasonable conclusion supported by the circumstantial evidence is that the defendant is guilty. If you can draw two or more reasonable conclusions from the circumstantial evidence, and one of those reasonable conclusions points to innocence and another to guilt, you must accept the one that points to innocence. However, when considering circumstantial evidence, you must accept only reasonable conclusions and reject any that are unreasonable.

Then we were sent off to deliberate. First thing (after electing our foreman) was to take a quick vote. 8 guilty, 3 not-guilty, 1 undecided. I was one of the not-guilty, because while I did think he likely was in the process of robbing the truck, I wasn’t convinced that the prosecution had proven their case. I was worried by some tools that had gone missing and not been found. Why? How? The prosecution had a possible solution, which was that the defendant had broken into the truck, taken the tools that were still missing, taken them elsewhere (perhaps his girlfriend’s house, a block away), and then come back to finish the job. We talked about it some more…about how the defendant said he was walking to the bus (though he went the wrong way for that), but he didn’t have bus fair in his wallet (according to the officer, the defendant said he did). About how if he were walking along as he had said, he would not have been seen by the officer. About how the officer’s story was much more reasonable. On and on and on.

And in the middle of this, we are not supposed to consider the punishment. Not supposed to consider that this is the defendant’s 3rd conviction, not supposed to worry about California’s “3 strikes, you’re out” law. Not supposed to worry about sending a man to prison. I mean, he may have earned it, but somehow, now we’ve been pulled into the equation. So of course we’re thinking about it, though we have been instructed not to.

In the end, we decided that the circumstantial evidence led to guilt. That it was our job as jurors to follow the stupid rules, and declare the man guilty. So we did. I’ll admit, I felt a little sick. I was not alone. We were all upset by the fact that we were pulled into this situation, that we had to be a part of sending a man to prison. That we had to follow the rules, whether we agreed with them or not. I think we all agreed with the rules in principal, actually, but the reality of our part in the process was upsetting. And really, shouldn’t it be? If you are part of the process that sends a man to prison, shouldn’t it weigh at least a bit upon your heart? I don’t think we did the wrong thing. I think we did the right thing. But while the whole process was really interesting, in the end, it wasn’t fun.

11 thoughts on “Jury Duty

  1. I was on another jury a few years ago, and the crime was drunk driving. 1st offense, no one was hurt. No feeling that anyone was going to jail, that we were part of a system that continuously fails certain sectors of the population (not that they are in any way blameless). It was much easier.

  2. Wow! That’s heavy! All I can say is thank you for your service. I think you did the right thing, too, but it must have been very difficult and taken a lot of courage. Hugs to you!

  3. I had jury duty three or so years ago and found mine very disillusioning as the legal process. The jury does not get all the information they really would like. Jurors cannot ask questions. It made me very sympathetic regarding the next time I read about what seemed a bad jury verdict. The truth is our system isn’t so much about truth as process. And that’s discouraging.

    • Yeah, our defendant originally had 3 charges against him. One charge was dropped pre-trial. I do wish I had known what that was about, and how it related to the other charges.

  4. I’ve been called for Jury Duty, but I’ve never served on a jury. I’d be happy to because I do think it’s a civic duty, and I do think that, while it’s by no means perfect, it’s a better system than any other that I know of.

    It’s incredibly stressful for jurors who are conscientious and take their job seriously. The law can be limiting and frustrating and seem cold and impersonal, but that’s sort of the point, I guess. Without a statute to follow to the letter, then justice has no real compass.

    Thanks for including (California’s) law regarding the role and limits of circumstantial evidence. It’s a very common misconception that one cannot be convicted at all based upon it.

    • I did find the rules to be a big help. We were often told, “whether you like it or not”, “whether you agree with it or not”, etc. Difficult sometimes to put your emotions aside and follow the law like that.

  5. Sounds to me that the guy was SO guilty and I would love to be the one to throw the book at him. Thank God he wont be on the streets anymore stealing stuff that doesnt belong to him. He is a complete loser and didnt deserve being paroled to begin with. Sounds like the cops didnt do their jobs completely or they would have finger printed and found those missing tools. So I say good job, you did a great job (after getting over your not guilty verdict). 😉

    • Jenny, I suspected you’d feel that way, former police officer that you are. Having had that job, I doubt you’ll ever be put on a criminal jury. A civic case maybe…

  6. I’ve been called to jury duty 8-10 times, in the jury box about a half dozen times, and empaneled four times. Medical malpractice in SF (hung jury after much kvetching), an absurd case of indecent exposure in Golden Gate Park (hung jury after much angst), attempted murder in Oakland (prolonged deliberations before conviction), and asbestosis a couple years ago (settled mid-trial). I work for the court of appeal, too, so I’m part of the culture, but much as that seems to get some of my coworkers off, the lawyers seem to like having me on board. I know so many people who’ve never done it and some who are curious about it. Still, I really feel like I’ve done my time now, ya know?

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