My jury duty experience

Yesterday I reported in for jury duty. I was impressed by the whole process. But while I left feeling like I’d been a part of something big, over the course of the day I ended up feeling unsettled and dissatisfied. The case we were on was abruptly closed by mistrial about 3 hours into the morning. It’s not so much that I think justice wasn’t served (there will be another trial, I assume) but I really feel for all the people who put a lot of emotional effort into getting through the day and some of them are going to have to do it again.

Here’s how the day went, for those curious about jury duty.

We showed up at 8:30. (Actually we were supposed to show up between 8:15 and 8:30. I showed up at 8:25 and most of the other ~50 jurors were there already. They had to pull up an extra chair for me. Only one other person showed up later than me. For the record, I was hanging out in my car with my smartphone.) We watched a 10 minute video on why we have a jury system and why it’s such an important thing. It managed not to be too cheesy.

We were then escorted to the court room where the prosecutor and defense were already waiting. The judge showed up, we all swore an oath, and then they called up 12 of us to begin the jury selection process. In spite of his black robe and high seat, the judge came across as a very friendly, likeable guy. He managed to ask really personal and tough questions of all of us in an nonthreatening manner and while he didn’t make it lighthearted (the subject wasn’t lighthearted), he did keep the day flowing and made everyone feel like they were treated with respect. We felt valued and respected.

I was relieved to hear the trial was expected to take less than a day. At that point, I was interested in serving. (I had been terrified I was going to end up on a six month trial.)

We all got asked some standard questions (name, age, education, occupation, length of time you’ve lived here, kids, parents, spouses, their occupations, do you have any friends or family that are in law enforcement, sued anyone, been sued, been victim of a crime, etc.) We had to answer each question out loud for the whole group. (You could request to answer a particular question in private.) Then the judge followed up on some questions and asked some additional questions. Note that the whole group of 50 potential jurors is still sitting there listening and 12 of us are answering each of these questions.

After that each of the attorneys got their turn. They used their jury questions to make points. The defense attorney in particular really wanted to make sure we knew that putting her client on the stand might be a bad move for him and did we understand why. She was really condescending about how she asked questions. But perhaps I just didn’t like her after she told me engineers had a reputation for being poor communicators and could I tell her about a time when I thought I’d perfectly clear and yet the other person just hadn’t gotten it. I don’t think she was implying that I was a bad communicator but that all the “geeks” I worked with were. I really wanted to tell her what I thought about that but I stuck to the question. I told her nobody is such a good communicator that they can’t be misunderstood. (Perhaps that’s why she chose me to stay. After listening to the victim though, I believe the victim was communicating perfectly clearly. If the guy didn’t get it, he had problems.) I can’t say I liked the prosecutor’s questions any better though. She tried to explain “reasonable doubt” by asking me if I stop at every green light. I hate rhetorical questions that you are forced to answer in public to make someone else’s point. Especially when you don’t get to ask questions back. (Perhaps that’s why I liked the judge – we were allowed to ask him questions.)

One woman had to recount her personal experience with domestic violence including kidnapping and beatings and the subsequent trial for the entire group of 60+ people at the public trial. (She could have asked to answer them in private.) She was not dismissed and she had to answer more questions about her experience for both the attorneys and then she wasn’t chosen for the jury. I really felt for her. What a shitty way to spend your morning.

They chose 6 of us to serve as jurors and we got a short break. The jury room was nice with windows, a couple of private bathrooms, food, water, and rather alarmingly to me, a very large selection of magazines. (How long were we going to be in there?) We were allowed to use our phones in the break room though so we could catch up on voice mails and emails.

The jury ended up being half men, half women. Three of us from my small town, none from the town where the crime took place. All of us were college educated (which was not the case of the pool they pulled from.) Two were teachers. Three of us were in technology or engineering.

We were sworn in (again) and the judge told us what the trial was about. A guy was charged with trespassing and interference of telephone services.

Then the attorneys gave their opening statements.

According to the prosecutor, the victim had broken up with her boyfriend. He had been calling nonstop, showing up at her work place and her hang outs. The day in question, he was waiting in her parking garage for her. In spite of the fact that she repeatedly told him to leave her alone, he followed her up to the apartment, stood in the door for a while, came in and continued hounding her. When she reached for her phone to call 911, he grabbed her wrist and threw her phone to the ground, shattering it. She then went to a neighbor’s apartment to call 911 and stayed there till the cops came.

I ended up liking the defense attorney even less than I had during jury questioning. Her argument was that her client (a large body builder) felt like he was being attacked (by a small woman) and the cell phone got accidentally knocked to the floor. Proof of this, in her mind, was the fact that he had not destroyed the whole apartment. I wondered why she was creating mental images of slashed sofas and shattered furniture in our minds. (She mentioned these several times.) She also (later in the case) argued that the victim should not have expected her client to understand “please go away, leave me alone” when repeated 15 times because he had a previous brain injury and she knew about it.

Then the victim took the stand as the first witness. My biggest regret about the mistrial is that she will have to tell her story all over again to a whole new group of people in front of that same guy and face challenging, tricky and mean questions from the defense all over again. (Note that the victim is not the one that decides to prosecute cases like this.) The defense attorney was obviously trying to make the victim lose her composure. For example, the victim was asked when she last had sex with the defendant. She said the first weekend in April. A couple of minutes later, the defense attorney started saying, so you last had sex with him the last weekend in April and proceeded to talk about it that way for the next 5 minutes. Without a question, so the victim couldn’t correct her. Then when she asked the victim to find the date on the calendar, she gave her a hard time about “but you said the last weekend in April!” It was all just theatrics.

But the defense attorney won this round. She got the victim to say that one of the reasons she didn’t want to date the defendant was because she learned about his criminal record.

The minute “criminal record” was said, the trial was over. Mistrial.

The jury is not supposed to know if the defendant has a prior criminal history and, as the judge said, it’d be really hard to erase it from our minds.

So I don’t know which way I would have voted. I know which way I was leaning but there were still several witnesses and other evidence to examine. I do feel very bad that the victim will have to take the stand again. After listening to her, I am sure she would just much rather the whole thing went away. I wish her the best and I hope the guy leaves her, and all other women, alone in the future when they say “leave me alone”.

As an interesting side note, in Colorado the jury is allowed to question the witnesses too. We were given paper to write our questions on. We would then pass them to the judge and if admissible and he’d ask them for us. We all had lots of questions but we had to wait for the attorneys to finish their questioning first so we never got to them.