June 7, 2013

Jury duty sobering experience

Posted in Between Us column, Politics at 1:17 am by dinaheng

Every year or so, a jury summons comes in the mail. Most of us dread getting called for this civic duty, resenting the interruption to our daily lives, our schedules, and… well, our daily lives. We dream up excuses why we can’t serve, and accept the sympathies of others who are just glad it’s not their turn to go to court.

Each time I’ve been summoned, I‘ve sat in a juror assembly room for the Superior Court of Los Angeles, reading until I was dismissed at the end of the first day. It was always a total bore. But this year was different. I got picked for a jury, and the experience was not what I expected.Dinah Eng

The Monday I reported for duty, it wasn’t long before the first group of 35 prospective jurors were called to a courtroom. We were sworn in, and introduced to the judge, the prosecutor from the city attorney’s office, and the defense attorney from the public defender’s office — all women. Clearly, we were not on the set of “Law & Order.” I was curious to see how things would unfold.

The preliminaries… Not surprisingly, one by one, jurors asked to speak to the judge in private, offering reasons why they should be excused. What was surprising was that 18 of the 35 prospective jurors asked for an audience before the judge put a stop to the parade of pleas. She called us all in and gave a lecture she’s no doubt given many times before.

To paraphrase her point, we live in a free country where people are not drafted to serve in the military. The only civic obligation we must fulfill, other than paying taxes, is to be available to serve as a juror once a year. Our system of justice depends on trial by a jury of our peers. If you think your schedule is too important to accommodate this, shame on you.

Her words apparently didn’t sway everyone. As we started the process of voir dir, where the attorneys ask questions to determine the backgrounds and biases of jurors, a few whiners still tried to get themselves dismissed. The worst was a former TV writer for “Desperate Housewives,” who said his sister was an attorney who’d been a prosecutor, then changed paths to become a defense attorney. SInce he’d heard horror stories from her, he didn’t think he could be an unbiased juror.

Again and again, the judge asked if he could be fair.  The best he could manage was, “I can try.” Clearly, he wasn’t interested in trying. When the attorneys dismissed him, you could hear his triumphant whisper of “Yes!” as he left the jury box. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was glad he was dismissed.

Now for the case…  (All names have been changed to protect people’s privacy and reputations.) Walter, an African-American male, and his wife Sara, a Korean immigrant nurse, were live-in caretakers for an elderly man in Los Angeles. Also living in the home were Patty and Cindy, Sara’s two teenage daughters from a previous marriage. Visiting them that day was Henry, a Caucasian college student and Patty’s boyfriend. Walter and Sara were arguing, and Walter didn’t feel like talking. That evening, Walter took his spaghetti dinner to the couple’s bedroom to eat in front of the TV. That didn’t set well with Sara, who wanted to talk, so she started throwing clothes out of Walter’s closet at him. He ignored her until she decided to leave the room.

As she walked out, she turned to go back into the room, and Walter, a strong heavy-set fellow, closed the door on her arm. When Sara couldn’t get her arm out of the door, she screamed for help. Her daughters and Henry came running. It took 11 minutes or so for four people on one side of the door to push it open. Walter ordered Henry to leave the house. Henry refused, fearing that the women could be harmed. Walter pushed Henry, and in the ensuing tussle, Henry was slammed into a wall, leaving him with a bruised neck and bloody back before Sara screamed at Patty to call the police.

The charges… There are three misdemeanor charges against Walter. Count 1 is simple battery committed on his wife Sara; Count 2 is a lesser battery charge committed against Sara and Count 3 is simple battery committed against Henry. Reaching a verdict required unanimous agreement by the jury.

Fast forward to the witnesses… Henry’s testimony is consistent with the photos of his injuries at the crime scene. Sara denies that Walter did anything wrong. The only thing she confirms was that Henry was trying to help her. Patty says she doesn’t remember what happened, but confirms that Henry was trying to help. Walter says he was strong enough to hold the door open against four people without the door ever touching his wife’s arm, and that he had every right to defend his space against Henry’s intrusion.

The jury… Our jury of seven women and five men is a cross-section of ethnicities (Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian), professions (secretary, veterinary tech, executive director of a non-profit) and economic backgrounds. The trial concluded on Thursday afternoon, and as we sat down to deliberate, Gary, a boat repair business owner, volunteered to be the foreman. We took a vote on the three counts to see where we were. It was 6-6. The room was shocked. Here we all thought we’d be on the same page, and it would be easy to reach a verdict.

The deliberations… You can learn a lot about people after sitting with them in a room for a day. As we discussed the case, some of the guys thought Sara was to blame for her own injuries by pestering Walter to talk when he didn’t want to. David (bless his heart) insisted that there was no reason, ever, for a man to lose his temper and injure a woman. Half of the women thought Walter was guilty, and half voted him innocent of the charges.

The next day, as we all shared our opinions, some changed their minds, and the votes against Walter moved to 9-3, guilty on Counts 2 and 3. In order to get those guilty votes, the group agreed to find him not guilty on Count 1, the more serious of the charges against his wife, voting 11-1 not guilty, with David, the lone holdout. As we talked, disagreements emerged about various points, and the court reporter read back testimony from the transcript for us. More questions emerged, and the judge’s response was, “You have all the information you need.”

The frustrations… When it comes to standing in judgment of another, we can never really be totally objective. Regardless of what evidence may show, our judgments of others are really a reflection of who we are, what we have experienced, and what we believe. After a day and a half of deliberations, the votes against Walter climbed to 11-1 guilty on Counts 2 and 3.

The holdout was Gary, the foreman, who insisted that Walter had acted out of self-defense, protecting his space. Gary said that he, too, had once been the victim of an unprovoked attack, but as another male juror noted, “Come on. Walter was defending a bowl of spaghetti.” Even if the defendant was guilty, Gary argued, “I don’t think this should go on the guy’s record.” The more Gary talked, the more evident it became that he had probably done something in his own life that he had not taken responsibility for. To admit that Walter was guilty would mean admitting to himself that he had been wrong, too.

As Gary pushed the idea of self-defense, two young women began to agree with him. Both believed that if you were pushed, you should push back. Never mind the idea that there are instances where pushing back is not necessary or justified. One of the women said she found the defendant “funny,” laughing at Walter’s one-liners on the stand. In the end, we could not reach a unanimous vote, deadlocked at 11-1 not guilty on Count 1, 9-3 guilty on Counts 2 and 3. We had no idea that that 11-1 vote would be interpreted by the judge as meaning the majority leaned toward acquittal for Walter, when it was actually the opposite.

The judge… Judges try so many cases, it must be hard to bring a fresh perspective to each one. Our judge clearly had no patience with jurors trying to get out of jury duty. She also seemed to have no patience with jury questions. Instructions were read to us in a bored monotone. When we asked for clarifications, she gave few. We had no idea that we would have had to find Walter not guilty on the first count in order for the second, lesser charge to apply.

After hearing that we could not reach a unanimous decision, the judge declared a mistrial. Two months later, at a trial review, she threw the case out, over the objections of the People. It would have put the family through more turmoil, and it would have cost more money to try it again. But if the judge had given better instructions in the first place, the jury could at least have sent the message that most of us believed Walter was guilty.

Serving on a jury was not fun, but it was an important reminder that we live in a democracy where people hold differing opinions, and the only way to reach a common goal is to work together. We all tend to hang out with people who think and believe as we do, creating cocoons of comfort in our everyday lives. But it’s only when a cocoon opens that you really see the world.

Rather than dreading that jury summons, be grateful that you’re not the one on trial. We all have private lives that we don’t want to put on hold. But if we want a justice system that’s as fair and impartial as possible, we all must participate. In the process, we may just learn that other people’s opinions matter as much as our own.

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2 Comments »

  1. Having served on juries that continued through to verdicts, in one case narrowly avoiding a mistrial, I have sympathy for your difficulty.

    The deliberation by the jury is supposed to be according to the law, not one’s own experiences. We had lengthy discussions about “jury nullification” in our deliberations, and had to admit there were incidents in almost everyone’s life that constituted actionable offenses. We could agree that most people are guilty of something they never get charged with. It’s regrettable your jury foreman wasn’t able to stick to deciding whether or not Walter was guilty of THESE charges. That’s where a jury’s responsibility begins and ends. It’s not up to a jury member to add a dimension such as whether or not it should be on Walter’s record. Walter’s record is irrelevant. Did the crime occur, and was the defendant responsible, were the only questions put before you.

  2. Pete K said,

    You think that’s tough? Try an 11-1 argument about whether a guy was driving sober 7 hours later with food and sleep, and when YOU are the only one who was paying good attention especially when they gave the HARD LOGICAL SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE, and YOU were the ONLY one who independently calculated the truth, the truth of which was that there was something seriously wrong with the prosecution’s calculations consistency with the witness testimonies of both officer and defendant! These people were AFRAID to go against the law, the law could very well be statistically accusing innocent people….and they are letting it happen. I was naïve to think these adults were intelligent members of society, I am now very afraid of ever being falsely accused of a crime for I know that unless a very rare individual such as myself were on the jury, I would be close to hopeless whether I was truly innocent or not, 90% chance says I’d still get the book thrown at me.


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